Saturday, October 25, 2014

James Alison on the Gifts Offered by LGBT Catholics to the Church Today: "Bearers of Catholicity on Terms of Equality with Everyone Else"

Some theology for you on this beautiful fall weekend (beautiful here, at least — and I hope in many other places too): I'd like to summarize the argument set forth in a presentation that the openly gay priest James Alison gave in early October at the "Ways of Love" conference sponsored by the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups in Rome. Alison summarizes where LGBT Catholics find themselves right now by addressing four points: 1) a matter of basic Christianity; 2) Catholicity, rather than inclusion; 3) preparation for evangelization; and 4) holiness, speech and witness.

He prefaces his commentary on the status of LGBT Catholics by asking his listeners to imagine what took place when the Roman centurion Cornelius invited Peter to address his household in Caeserea, a scene recounted by the author of Acts in chapter 10 of that biblical book. As "God-fearers," non-Jews who were attracted to the message of Judaism, Cornelius and his household had long been accustomed to understanding themselves as "second-class citizens in the house of God." Because they were ritually impure (the men among them were, for instance, uncircumcised), they were allowed to attend worship at the synagogue and follow it only "from a carefully separated space" that protected the ritually pure from the touch of these unclean God-fearing Gentiles:

We attend, then, aware that we are considered impure, and not to be touched.

And then Peter arrived to preach to this impure household and shocked them by entering their house, thus contacting their impurity and taking it on himself. He added to their shock by announcing to them that "God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean."

He connected that proclamation to Jesus of Nazareth, in whose name he claimed to be making the proclamation. The message his hearers understood Peter to proclaim about this Jesus of Nazareth was as follows:

Having been treated by the religiously observant as someone worthy of condemnation, in fact he had turned out to be acting entirely with God’s approval. In this way, by his vindication, he up-ended much of the received way of understanding God among the religiously observant of his people.

Hence the shock of those hearing Peter's message in Cornelius's house: 

We were finding ourselves insiders in this movement of the Spirit just as he [i.e., Peter] and they were, and on absolutely the same terms of equality, without any distinction.  . . . And we were amazed to find ourselves insiders in the life of God, sharers in God´s holiness, without any distinction based on any of Peter’s, or our own, previous understanding of what was needed to be an insider in the life of God. 
Well, each one of us was as shocked as the person next to them: the first-class citizens finding themselves on the same level as us, with all their purity and sense of separateness deflated, and having to overcome a certain repugnance about dealing with people like us; and the second class citizens having to get used to taking ourselves seriously and behave as sons and daughters, rather than dirty servant children who had a sort of built in excuse for impurity.

For James Alison, this biblical text is a useful ground for describing where LGBT Catholics find themselves in the church at present. He explains what he means by that assertion by making four points, those enumerated above.

1) A matter of basic Christianity

At the very heart of the Christian proclamation and at the very foundation of the church are the death and resurrection of Jesus. What Peter tells the household of Cornelius in Acts enables us to see that Jesus's crucifixion meant the following: 

Jesus in his teaching and by his powerful signs had borne witness to God who had nothing to do with a purity code, no tolerance for any religious exercises, such as sacrifices, that replaced or got in the way of the reconciliation between human beings that he longed to bring about. 
He did, however, have a very great deal of interest in those considered unacceptable by the society of his day. Eventually he was considered blasphemous and seditious by a confluence of the religious and the civil authorities, and he was murdered. His murder was carried out in such a way as for him to fall under the officially designated curse of God.

Jesus was crucified, he was put to death on the cross, he was murdered and, his enemies hoped, silenced, precisely because he was considered blasphemous and seditious. These charges were made against him because he contravened the purity code of his culture by displaying extraordinary interest in "those considered unacceptable by the society of his day." 

And then the murdered, crucified One was resurrected by the power of God's Spirit — a vindication of everything Jesus had said and done, and what he proclaimed about God: 

It was the vindication from On High that the whole of the religious and political structure that had put him to death was under judgment from God. In other words, that he, Jesus, who had looked, to all extents and purposes, like a blasphemous and seditious transgressor, had been telling the truth about who God is in his teaching. 
It is because of this that there is, formally speaking, no Christian religious law from outside us. The Image of Himself that God gave us in Jesus was not that of a Lawmaker, but that of the self-giving Victim of the conspiring together of both civil and religious lawmakers.

For LGBT Catholics, the recognition that God, as revealed us in the death and resurrection of Jesus, is not the supreme Lawmaker, but the self-giving Victim of those who conspire from both the civil and religious side to impose their human laws on others in the name of God, has quite startling implications. 

One is that the description of who we LGBT human beings are, a description long imposed on us by religious and civil lawmakers claiming to represent God, is simply wrong. It does not represent our reality. We do not experience ourselves as we have long been described, as "defective, pathological, or vitiated straight people; intrinsically heterosexual people who were suffering from a bizarre and extreme form of heterosexual concupiscence called 'Same-Sex Attraction'":

That description, which turned us, in practice, into second-class citizens in God’s house, is quite simply false. It turns out that we are blessed to be bearers of a not particularly remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition.  . . .  And this means something quite significant: the only way a teaching can genuinely be Catholic is if it is bringing to mind something that really is the case about the human beings in question. Thus, the moment it becomes clear that what used to seem like an accurate description of who we are, a description which imagined that it sought our good, is not in fact accurate, but quite simply mistaken, then at that very moment it ceases to be possible to maintain that the teaching that flows from that description is Catholic. For the Catholic teaching follows the discovery of what the Creator shows us really is.

2) Catholicity, rather than inclusion

And so, today, LGBT Catholics are finding ourselves (and many of our fellow Catholics concur) "to be bearers of Catholicity on terms of equality with everyone else":

Catholicity gets to be redefined, through no merits of our own, by the objective element of humanity that we bring to the table simply being present as such.

We LGBT Catholics are, then, in no way that we merit or earn, bearers of important gifts to the Catholic church at this point in its history. By our very existence as those who happen to bear a not especially remarkable non-pathological minority variant in the human condition and who have been wrongly declared impurity as a result, we challenge the mentality of Catholics who would like to argue that the church need not pay careful attention to who people are (for instance, to what science shows us about who people are) in its moral teaching, but must cherish its right to impose on society its own, uniquely Catholic, understanding of who people should be.

As James Alison notes, this way of approaching things isn't, in fact, Catholic at all, in the best and classic sense of that term, since the best of classical Catholicism argues strongly that the church has an obligation to pay careful attention to what the best of science and reason tell us about how the world actually holds together. By our very existence and our insistence that God has crafted our human nature and declared it good, LGBT Catholics challenge a false, purity-code-based understanding of Catholicism which turns Catholicism into a kind of cult that has little to do with its powerful classical claims about the role of nature and reason in theological thinking:

But here’s the trouble: the moment people head down that path they are refusing Catholicity and creating a Church in their own image. Because they are turning the Catholic Church into a group defined by certain house rules, which are independent of reality. In other words, they are recreating a form of holiness that is over against others considered to be impure or profane. This is a regression to Second-Temple Judaism. At the very moment people do this, they automatically exclude themselves from the Catholicity of the Church, for they are seeking to turn it not into God's sign of God's longing for all humans to be reconciled with God through Jesus, but instead into their own sign of their own longing for a particular group with a strong group identity and carefully defined boundaries concerning who is in and who is out.

3) Preparation for evangelization

And so LGBT Catholics have a unique role to play today in helping the church evangelize the culture at large: LGBT Catholics are discovering, Alison insistes, "that we are bearers of Catholicity in our flesh." Through our experience of having been declared unclean by those who continue to cling to purity codes as the essence of our religious practice, we've learned — in our own bodies, as it were — what it means for anyone to be treated in this way in the name of God. We've learned, for instance, that women are often demeaned in the name of God in a way that is precisely parallel to the way in which religious people have frequently demeaned us who are gay — as purity codes that were evacuated of all significance by the death and resurrection of Jesus are treated as the essence of the gospel by these religious folks.

So one of the chief gifts that LGBT Catholics offer to the church today is a vantage point, based in the experience of being declared impure outsiders, which helps distinguish between the authentic gospel message and cultural deformations of the gospel which some Catholics erroneously want to substitute for the good news of Jesus Christ itself:

So in each culture in which we live we are thus in a great position to help our sisters and brothers undo the quite local and particular taboos, violence, and structures which masquerade as being of God, but are in fact the work of idols. 

4) Holiness, speech and witness

Alison concludes that LGBT Catholics therefore offer the church something very important to the process of evangelization today: we offer the church the "holy work of the enlivened imagination." And we offer the church the following as a manifestation of that enlivened imagination":

The boldness that flows from being able to speak truthfully out of an unbound conscience is not an extrinsic add-on to being Christian. It is intrinsic to what being Christian is all about. It leads to being able to bear witness, without which there is no Christianity. 

All of this, of course, was what the wrangling at the recent synod on the family was all about. Through their vote on the final document issued by the conference, the fathers gathered in conclave in Rome a few weeks after James Alison presented this lecture chose to reject the claim that LGBT Catholics have gifts to offer the church. 

I would not conclude, however, that this nay vote is the final statement to be made about this matter. It does not represent where many Catholics are today in their own thinking, for instance. And I'm not at all persuaded that it represents the final statement of God's Spirit about these matters — not as I read James Alison's powerful theological statement.

The photo of James Alison is from his website.

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