Last week, I had the privilege of attending the launch of theologian James Alison’s new book “Broken Hearts and New Creation”. I have known James since I first starting attending the London Soho gay Masses, where he was then a regular, and have read and admired all his his previous books, which have significantly influenced my own thinking, so I looked forward to this with anticipation. I was not disappointed – the evening even exceeded my expectations.
For those unfamiliar with his work, I offer some brief background. James is a priest, who was formerly a Dominican and teacher of theology. He was forced to leave the order some years ago for his insistence on speaking honestly about homosexuality, and since then has forged a new career as an independent theologian, writing, lecturing and leading workshops around the world. He is openly gay, but refuses to identify as a “gay theologian” – rather, he says he is a theologian who writes from a gay perspective. This shows, as his work is admired not only by gay Catholics, but also in the wider theological fraternity. (He was introduced at the launch as “every theologian’s second favourite theologian – after themselves”.)
Given the immense practical difficulties he was presented with by the church that rejected him, his writing is remarkably positive and free of resentment. Indeed, his first book was called “Faith Beyond Resentment”. This is not to suggest that he underestimates the hurt done to gay and lesbian Catholic by the church: his language frequently describes very graphically the extent of that pain, as in “Amidst the Stones and the Dust“, and “Hearts Close to Cracking“, which I have written about here in the past, but he says we can move beyond that pain and hurt. One reason for doing so, he argues, is that beyond the church is a God who delights in us, and whom we in turn must learn to trust and delight ourselves; and secondly, he sees signs that the Church will change and revise its present harsh attitudes (see “Discovery of Gay = Good News For the Church“).
These two themes, it seemed to me, were summed up in the title of the new book – “Broken Hearts”, and “New Creation”. Was he still optimistic, I wondered, going up to London?
I do not want to discuss the book itself here (I will come back to it later). Instead, I just want to share with you some of the points that struck me during the formal interview and the ensuing discussion that made up the launch.
James again placed a lot of emphasis on the importance of not allowing ourselves to fall into a feeling of “victimhood” because of our position in the Church. Victimhood, he says is a dead end. Instead, it is important that we relax into a new identity, given to us by God – for which we must wait, based on trust. One danger in creating our identity based on victimhood is that we then shape our identity in terms of the other victims like ourselves, and set against the others who do violence against us.
But an important part of graced living is that much as we in turn expect others to reach out to and include us, we too should be reaching out and including others -which we cannot do if we insist only on looking inward at our victim group. A familiar story of reaching out to the stranger is need is that of the good Samaritan, but James points out an important part of that tale that we often overlook – the Samaritan does more than simply attend to the injured man out of duty – he takes positive delight in doing so.
A recurring theme through his responses was the vital importance of relaxing into God’s love. One idea that particularly stuck with, was his observation that in most of our dealings with people, we present specific masks, chosen to offer the image of ourselves that we think are most likely to create a favourable impression. But when we are with close friends and loved ones, those that we already know like us, we allow the mask to drop – there is no need for pretence. So it is, he says, with God. We need to learn and accept that we really are liked and loved by God, just as we are. There is no need to hide from God. or to attempt to assume a false face.
The question I had hoped to put myself, but was not able to (there were far too many people to take all the questions), concerned his reading of the present potential for change in the church. I can guess at his likely response though, from the reply he gave to one man, who expressed surprise at James’s previously expressed high regard for Cardinal Ratzinger /Pope Benedict. Like so many gay Catholics, this questioner associated the pope strongly with the infamous Hallowe’en letter and other hostile documents from the Vatican. In his reply, James made the important observations (previously unknown to me) that although Cardinal Ratzinger had signed the CDF document on homosexuality, he was not its author. (It is known that it was written in English, which is not even his second or third language.) James says his information, from sources inside the CDF, is that in fact the document as drafted was quite a lot stronger. Instead of resenting the pope for putting a signature on a vile document, we should rather be grateful to him for toning it down. This sounds at least plausible to me, and offers a new perspective on the absence of further hostile documents since Cardinal Ratzinger became Pope Benedict , and also the remarkable lack of response to the calls for a rethink from Cardinal Schonborn and three other bishops. In private conversation, I remember James once before saying that he believed the pope was deliberately keeping quiet on the subject, preparing the way for a later modest reformulation – which could be precisely what Cardinal Schonborn’s remarks were designed to do. We can but wait, and watch.
But on the prospect of change, it may be that one other remark was even more important. Observing that there is little point in the rest of us attempting to change Vatican thinking, he pointed out that ordinary Catholics are already taking note of the findings of science, and simply disregarding official Vatican doctrine (just as most heterosexual Catholics already do on contraception and masturbation) . There is no sign that we are bending to fit in with the Vatican teaching. Instead, the movement will be the other way: sooner or later, the Vatican theologians will some scuttling along to catch up with the real world.
Other books “from a gay Catholic perspective” by James Alison: Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay On Being Liked Undergoing God: Dispatches from the Scene of a Break-in
- Colm Tóibín: Is Pope Benedict gay? (politics.ie)
- The Pope Is Not Gay (andrewsullivan.theatlantic.com)