James Alison

What I hope to do in this chapter is to further the possibilities for adult discussion in the Catholic Church. One of the things about adult discussion is that it presupposes people who are both capable of being wrong, and yet who take responsibility for what they say. One of the things about Catholic adult discussion is that, in addition to those two dimensions, it should be charitable and generous-spirited towards differing opinions within the discussion. Please forgive me in advance if I fail to live up to these demanding criteria, but I will certainly try to attend to them, and will expect to be held to them.

My first intention is to try and create a sense of "we." I am not by my words seeking to create party spirit, but rather to work out who the "we" is when we say that we are Catholic. For this reason I am deliberately not setting out to talk uniquely about experience, truth, and argument as lived by gay and lesbian Catholics. That rather assumes that there is a certain sort of "we," a gay and lesbian Catholic "we," which has a special sort of experience and that I am some sort of privileged exponent of the experience of this "we." To start in this way would be to start by setting up sides for some sort of confrontation. I would be delivering to you a set of arguments which you could use to wield against other catholics, and this would be, from my perspective, a failure of charity and of catholicity. Instead of this I want to take a step back from experience, truth, and arguments, as lived by gay and lesbian Catholics, and raise instead the more ecumenical question of these matters as lived by Catholics, period. In other words, as something lived by all of those of us who are Catholics independently of our sexual orientation.

Now it is of course impossible to be comprehensive about the experience of Catholics as regards the gay issue, but there are some suggestions which I can make which point to what I would hope we can all consider to be elements of shared life which are ours by virtue of being Catholics who have been alive in the last 20-50 years, give or take a few. The first of these is the emergence among us of the phenomenon which we might now call "the gay thing." Fifty years ago, the word "gay" was only occasionally used with its current meaning, and the idea that there might be public discussion of loving relationships between people of the same sex except in the most shocked or whispered terms would have been incomprehensible. Yet, now, 50 years later, this is increasingly normal at every level of society, and indeed is being legislated for in more and more countries with fewer and fewer objections.

Fifty years ago there were hardly any figures who were publicly known to be gay, and such gay characters as existed in the media tended to be either heavily coded, as in the plays of Tennessee Williams, or depicted as depressive, self-hating and prone to suicide. Now we have a major musician and his same-sex partner walking up the aisle of Westminster Abbey to play for the funeral of Princess Diana, with the BBC commentator's recognition of the partner being beamed throughout the world,1 while over the last 10 years, programs broadcast all over the planet like "The Real World," "Will and Grace," "Queer as Folk," and more recently "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," have introduced a different set of images: good, bad, risible, provocative, gentle and so forth, but definitely different, into the public consciousness. And of course this has affected Catholics just as much as anyone else. In fact, as far as we can tell from surveys, practicing Catholic lay people are significantly more likely to be completely relaxed about gay people than their practicing Protestant counterparts -and for some interesting reasons which will emerge below.

Fifty years ago, if someone had suggested that as many as half the men serving in the priesthood were homosexuals, that person would be assumed to be a bigoted anti-Catholic agitator who might be expected to go on in their next breath to claim that nuns regularly ate droves of the small babies who had been illegitimately born in their convents. Yet now someone who claimed that 50 percent of men currently in the priesthood are gay would not be considered mad, or anti-Catholic. Many, myself among them, would hazard that 50 percent seems a conservative estimate, at least in major metropolitan dioceses.

Whatever the figures were 50 years ago, and whatever they are now, one thing is certain: an angry denial that half the priesthood was gay 50 years ago and an angry denial of it now would be greeted by Catholics with entirely different reactions. Fifty years ago, an angry denial would have been expected, now an angry denial would be regarded as a sign that the denier was either ideologically driven or was suffering from some sort of extraplanetary mind warp.

I point this out not because I want to claim that it is a particularly Catholic thing, but rather because there is no evidence at all that being Catholic makes any of us less likely to have been affected by this huge change in social perception, which has worked its way through English speaking society, and, at different speeds and in different ways, through at least those other societies with whose languages and cultures I am familiar.

So here is the first point. In the first place what I call "the gay thing" is something which has just happened, and is just happening, to all of us, whatever our own sexual orientation is. You can be as straight as you like, but being straight is no longer the same as it was when there was no such thing as "gay." Our picture of what it is to be male or female has undergone, and is undergoing, huge changes which affect us not only from without, but from within. We find ourselves relating, whether we want to or not, with each other, and with ourselves, in new ways as a result of something which is far bigger than any of us and which is just happening. But please note that none of this makes any claim about whether this change is good or not, nor does it make any claim about what, if anything we should do about it. It merely notes that it has happened and is happening to all of us, Catholics and non-Catholics alike.

Now our experience as Catholics is not only that we have experienced this change, but we have also experienced our religious authority reacting to this change in particular ways. And this is not a matter of merely noting that religious authority has, from time to time, spoken out on these issues in the years since 1975, and that their pronouncements have reached us. We have all, religious authorities, lay people and clergy, undergone the changes together, and we have lived with each others' reactions to those changes. One of the things which it is worth pointing out, given the passions which this subject raises, is how few and far between have been the public pronouncements of Catholic religious authorities in this area, until very recently, especially if we compare them with the abundance of such pronouncements emerging from Protestant churches. There has been much more reticence to speak about the gay issue than might have been expected. And this for two obvious reasons: it has not been a particularly important matter for the Catholic laity until recently; and the clerical world has been, in this area, a glass house in which it was not wise to throw stones, and discretion seemed the least scandalous option.

This too is part of the Catholic experience: our undergoing the change which has permeated society has been mediated to us not only through television and so on, but also through a discretely, but nevertheless, thoroughly, gay-tinted clerical system. In other words, unlike many Protestant groups, as Catholics we have never really had the option available to us of seriously pretending that we didn't know any gay people, or that there weren't any gay people in our Church. The result is that for us, part of the experience of "the gay thing" as Catholics has been a set of reactions provoked not so much by the official pronouncements of the Church as by the way the clergy live in relation to those official pronouncements: whether they have reacted by being honest, dishonest, frightened for their jobs, open about their partners, leaving, staying, being blackmailed or whatever. This "living with the change" by living with the way in which the clergy are coping with the change is very definitely part of the Catholic experience of this issue. It too is entirely independent of the ideological slant or the moral position taken by Catholics who are reacting to all this: some such Catholics may excoriate the dishonesty, some may lambast a modernist plot to infiltrate seminaries and go on to demand that the gays be weeded out, some may be puzzled that there should be so many, or that so many should stay despite everything. Nevertheless, the comparative discretion with which this matter has been treated by Catholic religious authority over the last 30 or so years, the fact that "the gay thing" has come upon us, usually rather quietly, and is going on all around us, has been an ineluctable part of the Catholic experience in this area, whether we have been aware of it or not.

Now, here I want to say the obvious thing: that our access to the question of truth in this area has not been independent of this experience. Indeed it has only been through this experience that the issue has gradually begun to crystallize into questions of truth. And this is because one of the ways in which "the gay thing" has come upon us has not been merely that outsiders, non-Catholics, start to agitate about this issue; it is not something which is merely felt from outside pressure. Rather, "the gay thing" of its nature, happens within us. And I don't mean merely within the Church considered as a numerical body in which a similar percentage is gay to that found in the rest of society. I mean within the lives of people within the Church. It has become an ineluctable part of how we find ourselves coming to be adult humans at this period, whether or not we are ourselves gay or lesbian, that some of our number find it increasingly important, and at a younger and younger age, to identify themselves as gay or lesbian, aware that this is something they find themselves to be, that the label makes sense to them and is going to be an important dimension of their lives: it is going to be one of the ways they find themselves articulating their relationship with each other, family, friends, employers, and of course, church. And of course, they are aware, as are their contemporaries, that it is a word which is associated with a certain moral courage.

I guess that everyone knows that the kid who comes out at high school, or the student at university is being to some extent brave. I think that this point has much more importance than is usually attached to it. For most gay people, as for an increasing number of their straight contemporaries, "the gay thing" is not in the first instance anything to do with sex. It comes upon us as something to do with how we relate to other people in our peer group - whether we stand up for the effeminate kid who is being bullied by the jocks in the class, or whatever. And this kind of group dynamic through which "the gay thing" comes upon us is extremely important for our moral and spiritual development. It is here that we learn to stand up for the weak, or, in my case, to my shame, how to hide myself, join in the crowd of haters and "pass" for straight until a later time. And the interesting thing is that in this sense "the gay thing" comes upon straight kids as well - they too make moral choices, know what is right and wrong here. More and more adults and kids are reporting that straight kids are increasingly reluctant to go along with gay bullying, whether they see it being done by fellow students or by adults. This is not because they have become hedonistic, oversexualized decadents. It is, on the contrary, because they seem to sense that such behavior is unworthy of them: they are less than straight if they need to beat up on the gay kids.

But part of the Catholic experience has been that alongside the way in which this process of moral and spiritual growth is happening as young people start to react to the way "the gay thing" is irrupting into our midst, has also been the way in which Church authority appears to regard "the gay thing" as exclusively an issue to do with sex. And simultaneously to ignore the experienced moral dimensions that "the gay thing" has in the lives of those who are undergoing it. This leads to a disjunction being lived by us as, on the one hand we learn all about good Catholic values like solidarity, refusal to beat up on the weak, respect for the other. On the other hand, we perceive that in order to handle "the gay thing" themselves, Church authorities, which often enough includes such lay authorities as run Catholic educational enterprises, reduce the whole matter to sex. They are often enough notoriously bad at dealing with any of the lived moral issues which those not dependent on the clerical system for their employment have perceived to be psychologically and spiritually central to dealing with the whole gay thing - being brave, coming out, putting friendship at risk, being socialized transparently, and so on.

And this of course leads to one of the further disjunctions which is part of the Catholic experience of "the gay thing," which is the disjunction between the different sorts of truth-telling which "the gay thing" has brought upon us. On the one hand we have people who can be "out" as gay people, who can say "I am," and who are in all our parishes, neighbourhoods and so forth, and for whom truth-telling involves a certain form of sincerity, and desire to be transparent in their dealings with others, often quite pacifically so, sometimes infuriatingly and provocatively so. And on the other hand we have people who cannot say "I am." At least in public. And for whom truth-telling in this area involves talking about a "they." It involves an attempt to give an objective description of who "they" are who are being talked about, even when a considerable number of people suspect that the person saying "they" would be more honest to say "we." Yet, and this is important, the official characterization of the "homosexual person" in the recent documents of the Vatican Congregations is something which can only be applied to a "they," because even when the person talking is referring to himself, he is accepting the need to treat part of his "I" as a "they," as something that can never be brought into a personal relationship, can never become part of an "I" or a "we," never be addressed as "thou." That's what saying that an inclination "must be considered to be objectively disordered" implies.

This, too, is part of the experience of living as a Catholic as we undergo the "gay thing" - that there is a disjunction between two different sorts of truthfulness, neither of which seems quite adequate: the one because it suggests that sincerity is really all it takes to be honest, and that one can grasp an identity as gay and then "be" that thing, be wholly implicated in it, and the other because it suggests that truthfulness - holding fast to an official definition of what is true - requires dishonesty, makes self-knowledge the enemy of truth, and removes someone from the ordinary demands of charity, and solidarity.

I've tried to deal elsewhere with the subject of honesty in the Church (Alison 2003), but here I would just like briefly to indicate that it seems to me that the challenge for us as church now, and as a church widely perceived to have an honesty deficit, is to understand that honesty is not the same as either sincerity or "holding to objective truth" because both of those involve a certain grasping onto something. Honesty is something undergone as a gift of being brought into truthfulness by being given a self-critical faculty, and it can never be grasped. It is precisely appreciated by others when they see someone undergoing an experience of dealing with something which is making them more truthful. I don't want to major on this here, merely to point out that my choice of approach to this chapter, which may or may not be successful, has been chosen because it seems to me that we are more likely to reach truthfulness if rather than battling each other with incommensurable forms of truth, we start to learn to tell the story of what we have been undergoing together.

As Catholics we have a number of resources to help us work our way through some of these disjunctions, resources which I think we are in fact using already. I'd like to try and highlight how just one of these comes into play Curiously, I'm going to look at an unlikely resource, which I consider to be absolutely central to finding our way through this particular upheaval, which is the Catholic doctrine of original sin.

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