An Interview with James Alison

Theology as Survival

I met the theologian Fr. James Alison in the blogosphere. I’d written a post presenting his fascinating suggestion that Benedict XVI was slowly preparing the way for a change in church teaching concerning homosexuality. Alison wrote me a kind note of appreciation for the post and for the civility of the discussion. That note began a long exchange that led to the idea for this interview. We thought it would be interesting for him to be interviewed by someone like me—sympathetic to the plight of gay Catholics, but unconvinced by arguments for changes in church teaching on related questions. More interesting, at least, than a lot of the material covering this subject matter. We leave it to you to decide whether we were right. Below is an edited version of the interview; the full version will soon be published in installments at Vox Nova, and at


Brett Salkeld: You were not born a Catholic. What drew you into the Catholic faith? What drew you to religious life? What drew you to academic life?

James Alison: I was brought up in a hard-line Evangelical Anglican family—the sort of ambience that would be familiar to Americans as “the religious right.” I wrote about what drew me into the Catholic faith in my most recent book, Broken Hearts & New Creations:

What brought me into the church was a mixture of two graces. The first was having fallen in love with a Catholic classmate at school some years earlier. He was and is straight, but I perceived a certain warmth of personality in him which seemed untypical of the world of Protestant schoolboys in which I lived, and I associated that warmth with his being Catholic. The second was a special grace at a time when I was at a very low ebb, having just started to “come out” as a gay man in a very hostile conservative evangelical environment, shortly before going to university. This grace I associate absolutely with the intercession of Padre Pio, since it came at a time when I glimpsed something of the link between his stigmata and the sacrifice of the Mass; and I then knew, and have always since known, the Mass to be no mere memorial supper. This grace, which was accompanied by an astounding joy, literally blew me into the church.

I’m not sure, at this stage, what led me to attempt to join a religious order. On the positive side: the lucidity, intelligence, and serenity of the Dominicans I encountered, the legacy of St. Thomas, the lack of fussy piety—all these gave me some hope that I could emerge from the sense of annihilation that came with my background. On the negative side, I’ve come to see that in my case, joining a religious order was a decorous way someone who considered himself worthless could throw himself away without committing suicide. I had come very close to doing just that while an undergraduate in the late 1970s.

I’m also not sure that I’ve ever been drawn to the academic life as such. Theology has been a matter of survival for me. If I have a carapace of academic presentability, it is thanks to the wonderful teachers I had, among both the Dominicans in England and the Jesuits in Brazil. Even more than these, it is the thought of René Girard and that of some of his closest followers and friends that has given me, and continues to give me, something big to gnaw on, something organic from which to work out an intelligence of faith.

BS: Can you tell us a little about your work in theology? What excites you? What questions do you pursue?

JA: What has excited me ever since I came across René Girard’s thought has been the fecundity for theology of Girard’s mimetic insight concerning desire and violence. Thanks to Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism at work throughout human culture it has become possible to make sense of Jesus’ death as being salvific for us in a way that is entirely orthodox and takes us away from imputing any vengeance or retribution to God. Girard has also opened up for me a very rich hermeneutic for Scripture, one that avoids the temptations to Marcionism on the one hand and Fundamentalism on the other. These three areas, God, Salvation, and Scripture, are the areas I pursue most relentlessly. The paradigm shift Girard enabled for me has led me to develop an adult introduction to the Christian faith, a course of twelve sessions that some friends are working to make available to a wider public. I hope this will be a contribution to the New Evangelization to which we are called—one that is genuinely good news and not bogged down in moralism.

I’ve also been trying for some time to make the case that the church can indeed, from within its own resources, move out of a false, and often a hateful, characterization of and set of attitudes toward gay and lesbian people. I’m convinced that no new evangelization will get very far while its principal proponents, apparently unaware of the power of the gospel they preach, remain hobbled by this sacralized taboo. More and more young people seem to pick this up very quickly.

BS: What is your current canonical status? How does it relate to your status as an “out” homosexual, or your public views about homosexuality?

JA: My current canonical status is anomalous. I am a validly ordained priest in good standing, with no penalties or disciplinary matters hanging over me. Although it is many years since I have been associated with the Dominican Order, I have not been laicized. I am not incardinated into any diocese, though I am in principle available to be so incardinated, should a bishop want to have me. Apparently this is a legal situation that, like limbo, doesn’t exist. Yet, I’m in it (and with the paper trail to show how the situation arose)!

As I understand it, the situation is as follows: I have made public a reasoned disagreement with the current third-order teaching of the Roman Congregations concerning the “objectively disordered” nature of the “homosexual inclination.” The logical consequences of my view are many, but include the consequence for me personally that both the vows binding me to a religious order (since dissolved by the appropriate authority at the conclusion of an amicable process) and the public commitment to celibacy I made at the time of my ordination are null. This is because, at the time of my ordination—whose validity a Roman Congregation has confirmed to me—I still believed the church’s characterization of who I am (a defective heterosexual with an automatic nonnegotiable obligation to celibacy) to be true. Thus I made a public commitment under what I later discovered to be a falsely bound conscience. Such a commitment would be null, in the same way a forced marriage is null.

Well, either my publicly stated position is false, and my consequent claim of the nullity of my vows is simply the self-deceived convenient thinking of a bad man—in which case, why would any ordinary want to have me on his books?—or my publicly stated position is true, in which case it is also true that I have no valid vow of celibacy.

In other words, any ordinary who took me on would not only be accepting that my public position on matters gay is at least defensible by a priest in good standing without any demand for retraction; he would also be taking on board, with full knowledge of what he was doing, someone whose public commitment to celibacy is null, since taken under a false conscience. Indeed, he would be taking on board someone for whom such a commitment could not validly be made for as long as the church’s current characterization is in force. It’s not clear to me how any ordinary could do this unless he received some sort of dispensation to do so from the highest authorities in the church.

I should say, in case it is of interest to your readers, that at no stage since I exposed my conscience in this area to a Roman congregation in 1996 has any church authority made any attempt to persuade me of the falsity of my position.

In practical terms, with no one responsible for me, I have to work out for myself how to exercise a priestly ministry without any juridical backing. So I preside at sacraments only when invited to do so by the appropriate authority (which does happen from time to time), or when those present are in a situation of some irregularity themselves (for example, when I’m leading retreats for gay priests or laity), or know about, and are not scandalized by, the anomaly of my own situation.

BS: Can you tell us a bit about where and how you work? How has Brazil come to be your home? Would you prefer to work in a university?

JA: I did my theological studies in Brazil in the 1980s, and spent long enough in the country to be given a permanent resident visa. When, in 2008, I was given a fellowship grant which set me free to choose where I might live, I opted to return here, knowing that I could do so with no visa hassle, and hoping that I would be able to get involved in setting up some sort of Catholic LGBT pastoral work as well as disseminating the thought of René Girard.

I enjoy teaching, and would love to have colleagues and a sense of belonging to something. I’m also finding myself approached by people who tell me that they would like to study with me, or be supervised by me, and am ashamed that I’m unable to offer them any sort of institutional cover. Some sort of pension plan would be nice, too! On the other hand, little that I have seen of my life so far encourages me to think that I would have the staying power to be a responsible faculty member over time—I’m not much of a multitasker, and when I’m in productive mode, organizational things suffer. Practically, I would guess that the sort of places that would welcome an openly gay religious teacher would not be much interested in so obviously and straightforwardly Catholic a theologian as myself, while the sort of places that would like a straightforwardly Catholic theologian would find it difficult to contemplate having an openly gay one.

Among the implications of not working in a university is living with the realization of the worthlessness of my discipline in raw economic terms. Trying not to run away from the precariousness that ensues has been quite an ascesis. I work from home, in São Paulo, very much “to order”—planning the next talk, paper, or retreat. At the moment, and thanks to the generous, no-strings-attached fellowship I have been receiving for the last several years from Imitatio, the organization set up by the Thiel Foundation to help disseminate the thought of René Girard, life is good!

BS: Your writing reminds me of Joseph Ratzinger’s, because both of you manage to say very traditional things in fresh ways. But on the question of homosexual acts, you disagree with the teaching of the church. Can you tell us what you believe about the morality of homosexual acts?

JA: Thanks for the flattering comparison! But, to the area of our difference: I think you are mistaking me for a moral theologian, or someone who is professionally interested in sexual ethics. I’m honestly not sure that I’ve ever tried to talk as a theologian about “homosexual acts,” per se. My disagreement with the current teaching of the Roman Congregations is about what I consider to be their fundamentally flawed premise of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination. I don’t think it’s even worth beginning to talk about what acts might be appropriate before there is a recognition that we are talking about people whose way of being cannot properly be deduced from other people’s way of being. To do so would be like discussing different moves within a game of rugby while agreeing to hold the discussion under an enforced misapprehension that those moves are somehow defective forms of soccer playing.

BS: How do you think your views line up with the tradition on this question?

JA: I think I have quite traditional views on original sin, grace, and the real but difficult nature of we humans being able to learn something true about being human that we didn’t know before. And yet the consequences of this traditional view are really quite radical, in that they oblige us to face up to a question for which we have no precedent in the tradition. Given the most traditional Catholic understanding of the relationship between nature and grace, I wonder whether it is genuinely possible to defend the following thesis: “The comparatively recent human realization that there is no objective psychological or physiological disorder that is intrinsic to people whom we now call gay makes no difference to our understanding of the forms of flourishing to which such people are called by virtue of being what they are.” That seems to me to be the real question here: is it compatible with Catholic faith to claim that an authentic human discovery of this sort makes no difference to the shape of the flourishing of the people involved?

Moreover, it would seem to me that the recognition of the non-pathological nature of the minority variant in the human condition which you call homosexuality (I dislike the word myself) does inevitably alter the self-understanding of those of the majority condition, affecting how they understand the relationship between the unitive and the procreative dimensions of their loving. It would be very interesting indeed to hear a defense of it making no difference at all.

BS: How do you feel about church teaching on questions like pornography, cohabitation and extra- (including pre-) marital sex, masturbation, contraception and abortion? What are the implications of the fact that many who support a change in church teaching on homosexual acts would also support change in these other areas?

JA: If you’ll excuse me, I’m going to step outside the framing of this question, since it seems to me that to indulge it would be unhealthy. There is an underlying question here, however, that seems to me a very important one. This is about the relationship between Catholics, our Teacher, and our teachers. More and more, I sense a need for us, as Catholics, to be able to spell out some of the dimensions of this relationship.

Spending time, as I do, with people on both sides of the Reformation divide, I find strict parallels between the temptations to which either side is prone. Protestantism is tempted to bibliolatry, and Catholicism is tempted to ecclesiolatry. Both are forms of idolatry that involve some sort of grasping of security where it is not to be found. This grasping ends up by evacuating the object grasped (whether the Bible or the church) of meaning, turning it instead into a projection of the one grasping. The nonidolatrous approach is when we allow ourselves to be reached and held by a living act of communication from One who is not on the same level as either Bible or church, but of whose self-disclosure those realities can most certainly become signs. A sure sign of a pattern of desire locked in grasping is the speed with which we collapse into invidious comparisons such that we acquire our identities over against others in our own group, rather than receiving them together patiently from the one calling us into being.

As a Catholic I am fully committed to the notion that, the Word having become flesh, the living act of communication is an ecclesial one, made available through bodily signs. In addition, I take it for granted that the church is prior to me, and that if something is church teaching, it is true. The presumption is on there being some sort of truthfulness at work in the stated teaching until it becomes clear that this is not the case. The real question for me, as a Catholic trying to think toward the future, is this: we know that we have only one Magister, the Incarnate Word of God, and that the authentic teaching office in the church is not above, but serves, this Living Word. Furthermore, this Living Word has chosen to address us at a level of fraternal equality, making of us his brothers and sisters who have only one Father, God, and are not to call anyone else our father. So, how do we hold fast to the experience of Jesus teaching us in and as church as we become aware of how often the bishops, those who have been consecrated sacramental signs, seem to allow the richness of the faith to become secondary to culture-war imperatives, institutional self-interest, and the search for corporate approval? I think that reimagining the ecclesial shape of Christ teaching in our midst, exploring the sort of act of communication genuine divine teaching is, and understanding better the relationship between the Teacher, those taught, and those charged to be signs of truthfulness is going to be one of the real challenges of the next generation.

BS: Are there things that Catholics who support your view on homosexuality do that drive you crazy?

JA: Yes. The silence of those in positions of influence in the church who know, or have a strong suspicion, that being gay is a nonpathological minority variant in the human condition drives me crazy, far crazier than I am driven by any loud-mouthed purveyor of hateful nonsense. Of course I also think that many of the kinds of protests, demonstrations, kiss-ins, and so on that we see surrounding church events in this sphere are counterproductive (though these are only rarely organized and carried out by gay Catholics). Such things feed ecclesiastical delusions of holy victimhood. They effectively give church leaders an excuse to put off the slow, humble task of beginning to imagine forms of truthfulness of speech. Few people on either side of such rows seem to have enough faith to be able to imagine receiving an identity peacefully, rather than grabbing one through mutually convenient provocation. Only prayer and the Holy Spirit can lead those who are afraid to tell the truth into the awkward path of learning to do so.

BS: Much of the discussion in Catholic circles about homosexuality revolves around the distinction between homosexual persons and homosexual acts. The church condemns the acts as disordered (and calls any orientation towards disordered acts disordered), but insists that homosexual persons are not, as such, disordered. What are your thoughts on this distinction?

JA: This does seem to me somewhat of a Ptolemaic discussion in a Copernican universe. Of course there is a notional distinction between talking about what someone is, and talking about what someone does. The question is not “Does the notional distinction exist?” but “What use is being made of the fact that such a distinction can be formulated?” When the distinction is made in the discussion of gay people to which you refer, it is subservient to a conviction brought in from elsewhere—that of the objectively disordered nature of the inclination.

Think of it this way. There is a distinction between left-handedness and the act of writing left-handedly. For most of us the distinction remains exactly that, and has no moral consequences. We would understand that a left-handed person forced to write right-handedly owing, say, to having their left arm in a plaster cast, or a right-handed person forced to write left-handedly for analogous reasons, would, with some difficulty, be able to learn to do so. These people would in some sense be acting contra natura. But the use of the hand appropriate to their handedness would be entirely unremarkable. Now, imagine that, involved in a Catholic discussion, you find yourself addressing a left-handed person. You say: “Any left-handed writing you do is intrinsically wrong; and in fact the inclination we call left-handedness must be considered objectively disordered.” The only justification for using the distinctions in this way is if you have received, from quite other sources, the sure knowledge that right-handedness is normative to the human condition, anything else being some sort of defect from that norm, and yet you don’t want entirely to condemn the person who has a strong tendency to left-handed writing.

No, it seems to me quite patent that here we have an unwieldy bid to fit a reality into an acceptable framework, rather than learning from reality how to adjust a now unreliable framework. Any left-handed person, faced with the above logic, would know that the one addressing them really does regard them as a defective right-handed person, rather than a normal left-handed person. Any insistence on the part of the one who is addressing them that they are not calling them “disordered” as a person would be seen to be the humbug that it is.

So the only real question is: is it true that being straight (or right-handed) is normative in such a way that knowledge about being gay (or about left-handedness) should principally be derived negatively from the normative reality? If it is not true, then of course you are left with a notional distinction between being gay (or left-handed) and acts typical to that way of being, but the distinction has no moral significance in itself. What will give the acts their moral value will be a range of other considerations to do with human flourishing.

Personally I think that the current teaching of the Roman Congregations in this area is of unstable meaning. Either the claim that the inclination itself must be considered objectively disordered means something, in which case it enters into the realm of that which can be studied and understood by analogy with other objective disorders. Or, on the other hand, the claim says nothing at all about any reality that can be measured, and is simply the logical ground the CDF must stake out if it wants to maintain that the acts flowing from the inclination are intrinsically evil. This would be a consequence of their knowing that in Catholic theology, acts flowing from a neutral or positive inclination could not be intrinsically evil, but would be good or bad according to use. So, in the one case, the claim would be falsifiable by the human sciences, and in the other, we would be obliged to derive our understanding of what is from what is forbidden, or “can never be approved,” a voluntarist position smuggled in by the back door, and the claim would be something like a de facto defection from Catholic teaching concerning grace, nature, faith, and reason.

When someone makes a clear affirmation about something, the docile conscience can then say: “A truth claim is being made in an area available to study. Is it true?” By contrast with this, the refusal either to confirm or to deny that a truth claim is being made, while allowing a negative pall to hang over many people’s sense of identity, as if coming from God, suggests to me the presence of a spirit other than the Holy.

My own belief is that being gay is a regularly occurring nonpathological minority variant in the human condition, and that an appropriate analogy is left-handedness, which also, as it happens, used to be regarded as some sort of defect in a normatively right-handed humanity. I’ve arrived at this position having, as an educated amateur, followed the studies and arguments back and forth over many years, and notice that this position is tending to be confirmed the more we know and see of gay people who are able to live their lives openly. I hope I would be open to any emerging evidence that my view was wrong, though I’m aware how easily any of us can become locked into convenient self-deceptions and self-reinforcing ideological cocoons. Like all other educated amateurs gathering what I can from disciplines in which I have no expertise, what I know about the etiology of same-sex desire is regularly being updated as the field advances.

I remember my own relief on realizing that not all searches for causality are helpful. Part of my motivation in the search for a cause of being gay earlier in my life was the need to find “something that has gone wrong that I can put right,” and it was good, spiritually fruitful, to discover that the question “What went wrong in where I came from?” is actually not a useful one. More helpful is to ask: “How can I enrich where I’m going starting from where I am, however this has come about?”

What I imagine the church will want to develop, as it is able to take on board what we are learning to be true about gay and lesbian people, is some sense of “what is being gay or lesbian for?” A sense of the way that something that genuinely is has some sort of capacity to point up the glory of God by a flourishing that is appropriate to it. I take it that consideration of this is indispensable for us as church, given our faith that our Creator and Redeemer are one, and that there is an organic link between the Creation and the New Creation.

As to the current status questionis, I’m pretty much convinced by the evidence of the last fifteen or twenty years of research that the biological configurations that will manifest in a person being gay or lesbian are in place prenatally. Having spent time in the late 1980s and early ’90s of the last century flirting with “ex-gay” ministries and their literature, it now seems to me a mistake to think that sexual trauma, abuse, or any postnatal psychological factors are causative of a same-sex orientation, though I think that such things can indeed affect the way any of us receives into our lives, and is able to live out, that prenatal configuration of our capacity for love.

BS: Would I be right to assume that you advocate for church recognition of same-sex marriage?

JA: I’m not sure this is a discussion that is even worth having until the basic parameters can be agreed upon. Those who are committed to the notion that the people about whom they are talking are indulging an objective disorder, are impenitent practitioners of grave sin, and thus would be seeking to sanctify something that can never be approved, are not useful conversation partners if we are in fact dealing with people who are acting appropriately in seeking a form of flourishing that is an entirely legitimate option given who they have found themselves to be. Once we’ve agreed that we can talk at all, then I would say that from my perspective, the appropriate liturgical shape by which we bless God for the gift of the love between two same-sex spouses, and beseech God’s blessing to incarnate itself in their lives for us as Church, is something for which we have little jurisprudence as yet! And the same is true for our understanding of the analogies and differences between the relationships of same-sex married couples, and those opposite-sex couples who choose to live out the sacrament of matrimony (with its concomitant implications of the munus of the mater). It is the protagonists of these relationships who will, by lives lived publicly over time, yield for us knowledge of their essence. No sense trying to hurry what is necessarily going to be a process of learning over several generations.

What is certainly true is that no purpose at all is served by seeing these realities as in principle in rivalry with each other, as though same-sex marriage somehow cheapens opposite-sex marriage. Likewise, should it indeed turn out that marriage between two baptized persons of the same sex is not sacramental in exactly the same sense as opposite-sex marriage, then whatever form of sacramentality does turn out to be proper to same-sex couples would certainly not be “second best” to the sacrament of marriage. God’s summons to flourishing involves people being called in tailor-made ways, not forced to endure invidious comparisons. There are many mansions in God’s house, and he invites each of us to discover what is his plan for each one of us—we are called by name, not by category.

BS: You have expressed the belief that Pope Benedict is slowly preparing the way for change in this area. What do you expect such change would look like?

JA: Let me have a shot at explaining why I take the view you mention. And let me start by saying I have never met Benedict in person and have no privileged information about him. It is as a longtime reader of his books and a distant outsider to the inner counsels of those involved in the governance of our church that I attempt to understand what’s happening, from a mixture of prayer, hope, and gut. I’m moved in these by the conviction that since the church is inspired by the Holy Spirit, and since everything that is true, whatever its apparent source, comes from the Holy Spirit, therefore there must be a way the church can find its way into truthfulness in this area.

There is a personal element to this. Since I first read it, many years ago, something from the CDF’s document Donum veritatis has resonated deeply with me.

It can also happen that at the conclusion of a serious study, undertaken with the desire to heed the Magisterium’s teaching without hesitation, the theologian’s difficulty remains because the arguments to the contrary seem more persuasive to him. Faced with a proposition to which he feels he cannot give his intellectual assent, the theologian nevertheless has the duty to remain open to a deeper examination of the question.

For a loyal spirit, animated by love for the church, such a situation can certainly prove a difficult trial. It can be a call to suffer for the truth, in silence and prayer, but with the certainty, that if the truth really is at stake, it will ultimately prevail.

I take it that Ratzinger was the author, and, if you will forgive the perhaps delusional subjectivity, I have always felt since then, as I have tried wrestling with the gay issue in the church, that I was somehow in spiritual communion with him by remembering this formulation.

Nevertheless, my starting point in my reading of Benedict is hypothetical. I take it that part of any pope’s job description is enabling the church to remain in, and indeed advance in, the route to ever-greater truthfulness, and to do so in a way that maintains the unity of the church and doesn’t scandalize the faith of the weaker brethren. From what I have read by him, I consider Benedict to be particularly well suited to the subtleties and complexities of this task. Though this is, maybe, a theologian’s pleasure at that comparative rarity: a theologian on the papal throne! Given the job description, and supposing, as I do, that we are currently hobbled by an area of untruthfulness in matters gay, with a range of consequences for the lives of all of us, then what “route to truthfulness” in this sphere might be imaginable as being congruent with the life of the church? Let us remember that there is absolutely no mechanism obviously available to the church by which it can move on here. So a first consideration might be “What sort of change are we talking about?” It seems to me that we are talking not about a change of doctrine, but about a changed understanding of the anthropological field in which the traditional doctrine has to produce its fruit. My claim would be that the strict maintenance of existing doctrine concerning grace, nature, faith, and reason leads us to absorb without fear the full dimensions of authentic new learning about being human. This has inevitable consequences for our understanding of what forms of living are capable of bearing witness to God’s glory.

A second consideration might be this: any real change in this area is going to be voluntary. It’s only going to take place if we want it to. By which I mean that those who want to hold on to an entirely negative view of gay people and their lives will always be able to, and they will always be able to use Jewish and Christian sources, both scriptural and historical, as backups for their positions. The question is not whether it is legitimate for Christians to hold to such positions. The question is whether Christians have to hold to such positions as intrinsic to being Christian. And the answer to that question is going to be found in a journey of discovering for ourselves what is true, a journey where that which is true is attractive to us, draws us in, because it is true, so that we end up wanting to be able to live truly, and are prepared to undergo the hard work of wading through the debris of what seemed to be true but isn’t. The One who loves us desires in us, and strengthens our desire to want to live truthfully, so that our aliveness is His glory. The end result will not be our simply knowing something true, but our enjoying the greater richness of life that loving being truthful brings.

The most church authority can do in such circumstances, it seems to me, is gradually allow the contingent elements of church teaching in this area to come to be seen for what they are: contingent. If you suddenly tell someone, as if from a position of authority, that a belief they used to hold as in some sense sacred is wrong, and they are no longer to hold it, you run a grave risk of scandalizing them. It is much kinder and a much richer exercise in persuasion when new knowledge is socialized for us so that it gradually becomes clear that we can, without loss of faith or integrity, move into the new understanding. A positive demonstration of what things look like “now that you don’t have to hold that view anymore” is a much better exercise in teaching than the negative instruction “You must no longer hold that view.”

BS: What is your take on Vatican arguments against ordaining gay men? How does your own status as a gay priest affect your reading of this?

JA: I think church authority is probably right, for the moment, to warn honest gay men away from entering priestly life, though my reasons for thinking this are far from those publicly put forward by the Vatican. I do not think that the church is able, at this time, to offer an honest gay man a limpid context for vows or promises; it will require him to maintain in public and as being in some sense from God a characterization of who he is that he very probably knows to be false. Should he fail to maintain that façade, he will find himself vulnerable to violence of different sorts from seriously disturbed closet cases. The pathology of such people can only rarely be faced down by diocesan or religious superiors, since all involved are beholden to a “church teaching” which plays to just that pathology. Furthermore, until such a time as the church can recognize publicly that it is not true that all gay people are obligated, by virtue of being who they are, to celibacy, then there will always be a question mark over the genuinely voluntary nature of their promises or vows. A genuine promise of celibacy involves leaving a good (the possibility of marriage) for a good (celibacy for the sake of the Kingdom), but current ecclesiastical wisdom has it that a gay man would be leaving an evil (a possible same-sex partnership) for a good (celibacy) which it is his obligation to pursue anyhow.

I found it interesting that while the letter sent to bishops accompanying the 2005 document did not put into question the validity of ordination of gay men in the past, it did allow it to be understood that there is considerable room for uncertainty regarding the validity of their vows or promises of celibacy (hence the very gentle request to such men that they should “remember” their promises or vows). Naturally, the uncertainty was the result, in the Congregation’s eyes, of the objectively disordered nature of these men’s inclinations, a disorder rendering the fulfilment of the vows too heavy a burden for such people. My view is that the genuine room for uncertainty as to the validity of the vows is more properly related to the ecclesiastical culture kept alive by the false characterization at the root of the teaching. Nevertheless, as to the uncertainty, we are in agreement.

I was told by a CDF insider that the document that left the CDF, after its then prefect’s editing, was very considerably toned down by comparison with the draft that arrived at the CDF from its authors in Catholic Education. This feeds into my sense that Benedict is by instinct a temperature-lowerer in this area. I interpret the document as one of the last blasts of the previous pontificate, a particularly sad period in the church’s dealing with gay people.

As to my own take on all this, well, I commented publicly on the matter at the time, and it’s “in the record,” as it were. What I noted at the time of the 2005 document, and continue to think to be true, is that the issue to be dealt with here is in the first place a truth issue about being human, and only way down the line is it an issue about the clergy. Only when, as a normal part of church life, we have gotten used to what is true about being gay and lesbian, what relationships are good, and so forth, will it make sense to revisit the issue of the clergy, since only then will there be a limpid context for promises or vows; will there be a proper presumption of the validity of free choice in pursuing a particular lifestyle; and will the priest in question be able to live transparently, with that stable characteristic of sexual orientation being of little significance—except it be noted as part of that particular person’s giftedness for serving Christ’s people.

Until all this is resolved, people like me find ourselves, I guess, muddling along in this messy transitional period in the life of the church, resting in Our Lord’s good cheer!

[For more interviews from Commonweal, see our full list.]

Brett Salkeld, a doctoral candidate in systematic theology at Regis College in Toronto, is the co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating (Paulist Press, 2011).

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