Thursday, November 05, 2015

James Alison on the Likely "Really Big Deal" of Synod 2015

I have to say I really appreciate theologian James Alison's perspective on the issue that the recently-concluded Synod on the Family chose to avoid. This issue is, of course, the place of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Catholics in the church family. A major part of my appreciation stems from Alison's contention that perhaps "for the first time . . . the bishops seem to have faced up to having a genuine problem on their hands that is their problem, not that of LGBT people, and no apparent way out of it without help." If this is indeed the case, says Alison, then it is "a really big deal."

The bishops' "problem" is official church teaching on homosexuality, about which Alison writes: "There is no way to communicate current teaching mercifully, or with less hateful language – maybe because that teaching’s premise of the objectively disordered nature of the 'homosexual inclination' is actually false?"

Yet as appreciative as I am of Alison's perspective, I have to wonder why he chose to express the last part of this powerful statement as a question and not as a fact, not as an observable reality. The Roman Catholic clerical caste's premise for its teaching on homosexuality and, by extension, on human sexuality is false. And I think that as Catholics attuned to the presence of God in the lives and relationships of all, we need to be very clear in saying that there's no "maybe" it.

The words I use to describe both this premise and the teaching produced by it are erroneous, dysfunctional, and dangerous.* I know Alison would agree, so why the "maybe" and the question-posing strategy? Some might say it's simply a rhetorical question, that Alison is modeling the type of question that members of the hierarchy should be asking and that perhaps, he suggests, Pope Francis is inviting them to ask. Yet I question if we should ever shy away from unequivocally stating that the hierarchy's sexual theology (which is actually a narrow marital theology) is erroneous, dysfunctional, and dangerous. We owe it to ourselves and our experiences as LGBT Catholics, and to the young people and others struggling with and threatened by the homo-negativity produced by the Vatican's stance on sexuality, to make such unequivocal statements, no matter what the forum. Lives are very much at stake, and so I find the reluctance of many LGBT and/or progressive Catholic commentators to unequivocally reject the hierarchy's teaching on sexuality, to take any and every opportunity to declare it erroneous, dysfunctional, and dangerous, to be both disappointing and perplexing.

I should add that equally disappointing and perplexing to my mind is the failure to reject the feudal monarchical system that produces such false and damaging teaching, and the reluctance to identify this system as the antithesis of Jesus' life and message.

Having said all this, I still appreciate and value James Alison's efforts to offer hope with regards to the hierarchy's ongoing journey in understanding of homosexuality. Accordingly, I share the following excerpt from his commentary in the November 7, 2015 issue of The Tablet.

There were two weak-minded “ways out” of the current hierarchical impasse in the Church on matters gay – the first, a bombastic reaffirmation of current teaching as obviously right, the solution of the deluded pure; the second, that the teaching is right, but that there is a problem with the language in which it is communicated – the solution of the ­cowardly cosmeticians. I’m delighted to say we got neither. The low-key reaffirmations of loyalty to current positions in the final ­document have “pro tem” written all over them; and the general dropping from view of matters LGBT towards the end of the synod suggests that something much more interesting may have happened.

It is just conceivable that enough synod participants realised that there is no way to communicate current teaching mercifully, or with less hateful language – maybe because that teaching’s premise of the objectively disordered nature of the “homosexual inclination” is actually false? Teaching others, with however pretty a language, that they must buy into a falsehood about themselves so as to fit into pre-determined schemes of what is right or wrong, is to demand that they indulge a fragile rigidity that is the teachers’ problem, not their own – classic Pharisaism.

I suspect there was enough of a recognition that there is no genuine way out of the impasse without raising a question of doctrine, for it to be better to go quiet on the issue, and punt further study and discussion of the matter to the Holy Father – and quite possibly to the new dicastery he has announced dedicated to laity, family and life. If something like this was what happened, then I’d like to say: this is a really big deal. For the first time in my memory, the bishops seem to have faced up to having a genuine problem on their hands that is their problem, not that of LGBT people, and no apparent way out of it without help.

It is here, I think, that we see something of the genius of Pope Francis. I had feared that his statements about not changing doctrinal matters, but focusing on the pastoral, were a sign of weakness in the face of intransi­gent hardliners and would lead to cosmetic solutions. What a joy to be wrong! It seems rather, that he wanted people to run up against the dead ends of many current positions together so not only would they begin to dare to ask each other, and the Pope, the sort of questions which might lead to a more adult discussion of the matters at hand, but it would actually lead to a consensus of teachers realising that they need to, and want to, think more.

For in fact, when it comes to matters LGBT, the theological issues are not difficult to resolve. As a matter of group psychology, however, allowing the synod fathers, more than a few of whom have a personally complicated involvement with the matter at hand, to reach a consensus that the status quo is untenable, and thus that they actually want to find a way forward: that is difficult indeed. Yet something like the beginnings of this can be detected in the synod’s having punted on this issue: ­nothing now, so as to talk better, later.

It has long been noted that the Second Vatican Council opened up a way for an approach to learning what is true, what is of God, that makes room for the inductive – learning by experience of being led to truth – rather than the deductive approach, dedu­cing the logical consequences of doctrinal a prioris and then instructing people that this is what they ought to know, to think and to feel. And it has equally been noted, since Humanae Vitae, that among many areas where the Church is quite at ease with the inductive, experiential approach, there remains a strictly protected island in which the deductive, syllogistic approach is still regarded as synonymous with “doctrine”. It is no surprise, therefore, that it is in this area, touching on every aspect of family intimacy and the ability to talk honestly, that there is the greatest schism between “official doctrine” and “life.”

– James Alison
Excerpted from "Love in a Changing Climate"
The Tablet
November 7, 2015

* When I say the current teaching on LGBT issues is dangerous, I mean it both perpetuates the "blood-soaked thread" of anti-gay violence that's part of Roman Catholicism's history and contributes to the internalized homo-negativity of LGBT people, a homo-negativity that has been shown to predict poor emotional and sexual health.

Related Off-site Links:
Conspiracy of the Faithful: Following the Synod, from Afar – Catherine Wolff (Commonweal, November 2, 2015).
Gay and Catholic: What It’s Like to Be Queer in the Church – Debora Fougere (Aljazeera America, October 31, 2015).
LGBT Catholics Worship and Seek Acceptance Outside the Church – Amanda Guillen (Scripps Howard Foundation Wire, November 5, 2015).
Gay Priest Who Lost Vatican Job Assails the Church in Letter to Pope Francis – Gaia Piaigiani (The New York Times, October 28, 2015).
Ragged Questions After the Synod – Deafening Silence About How the Homosexuals Took Another One Upside the Head to Facilitate Pastoral Breakthrough for Everyone Else – William D. Lindsey (Bilgrimage, October 27, 2015).
How to Be Happy, Catholic and Gay – Terence Weldon (The Queer Church Repository, October 20, 2015).
To Have a Truly Just Church, Pope Francis Must Move Beyond Complementarity – Jamie Manson (National Catholic Reporter, May 6, 2015).
Homosexual Relationships: Another Look – Bill Hunt (The Progressive Catholic Voice, September 8, 2012).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
"Trajectory is More Important Than the Current Status"
Stop in the Name of Discriminatory Ideology!
The Non-Negotiables of Human Sex
Quote of the Day – May 29, 2015
A "Fruit" Reflects Upon the Meaning of "Fruitfulness"
What the Vatican Can Learn from the X-Men
Beyond Respectful Tolerance to Celebratory Acceptance
The "Ratzinger Letter" of 1986 as "Theological Pornography"
How the Pope's Recent Remarks on Evolution Highlight a Major Discrepancy in Church Teaching
The Gifts of Homosexuality
Remembering and Reclaiming a Wise, Spacious, and Holy Understanding of Homosexuality
Good News on the Road to Emmaus
Catholic Hierarchy Can Overcome Fear of LGBT People


wild hair said...

Thanks for posting this. I wonder about the question, but maybe the intent was to leave it in place for the hierarchs to think about. I was scheduled to go to a retreat by James Alison a few years ago, but was not able to go. So this was very good reading. I especially appreciate this insight from Alison; "...the hierarchy's sexual theology (which is actually a narrow marital theology) is erroneous, dysfunctional, and dangerous." How true.

Michael J. Bayly said...

Actually, Wild Hair, that "insight" as expressed in the statement you quote, is mine . . . although I'm sure Alison would agree with it.



wild hair said...

Thanks for the correction. Michael, I will hold your site and writings in even higher esteem. That really is a great quote. I shared it with a priest friend today. I may use it for awhile as my sig line at dailykos although I just put a new one up a few days ago, and now the whole site in undergoing an upgrade.