Truth, penitence, and the Gospel of forgiveness: a view from the other side

An initial contribution to a reserved discussion


James Alison’s contribution to a “Chatham House Rules” Catholic – with ecumenical participationdiscussion about matters gay. Neither the names of other participants, their contributions, nor the host location are to be shared given the potential for violence against some participants if it were known they were taking part. But participants were, individually, permitted to make public our own contributions.

In the Church’s classic scheme of things, we know very well how to conjugate the three realities “truth”, “penitence”, and “the Gospel of forgiveness” when it comes to matters lesbian and gay. The truth, we are assured, is that the existence of homosexuality is some sort of defect or failing within the order willed by God; penitence, then, becomes appropriate when someone allows themselves to be carried away by their objectively disordered tendency, to the point of committing intrinsically evil acts; and the Gospel of forgiveness is shown when a minister of the Church offers absolution to the sinner in question.

I’ve nothing to say to those who wish to maintain this way of thinking. Indeed, it is pointless to attempt conversation with such people, like bashing your head against a wall. Experience has shown me that here we touch on a question that has become “sacred” in the Girardian or Lévinassian sense of the word. A miasma of violent allergy surrounds the subject, and rational discussion quickly becomes impossible, for some raw nerve is touched.

So, as a matter of principle, I seek to avoid such discussions. They quickly become debates whose only purpose is to demonstrate dexterity in verbal and biblical fencing. Conversation only really becomes possible between those who have begun to question the sacred scheme. Those who wish to seek some way forward. Little by little a recognition emerges that there is a real problem here. One made more complicated than it might be, owing to those who depend on the sacred scheme for livelihood or life. Whether at the economic level of their employment, or at their personal psychological and spiritual level. Or as is often the case amongst the clergy, at both levels at the same time. It is in this context then that I’ve accepted with true pleasure this opportunity to speak with you. I can at last put before you the question which I have long wanted to.

Can we, lesbian and gay Catholics who live our faith openly starting from who we are, and not in spite of it, be of any help to you? And if so, how? Can those of us who have confessed and kept the Catholic and Christian faith through all the violence that was unleashed upon us in the previous two pontificates be of any help to you? And if so, how? Can I, a priest and theologian, long unemployable within the Church owing to my opinions on these matters, be of any help to you, and if so, how?

Maybe if we turn around that initial scheme completely? 

Let’s have a go…

The presence of the Holy Spirit at work in humanity takes a very particular form. God’s forgiveness comes among us, producing penitence by opening up our hearts so that we may come alive in the truth. This is a dynamic creative project in the midst of which we dwell, and to which our lives, warts and all, become witnesses. It is through forgiveness that we become free and conscious intelligent participants in the bringing into being of God’s intelligible creation as daughters and sons of God and heirs to the Kingdom.

As I see it, we are currently living through a strong moment of the arrival of God’s forgiveness in the Catholic Church. Let the shock that accompanied the unveiling of the Rapport Sauvé in France stand as a witness. While we were confident, sure of our systems and our goodness, that was when we were unaware of how much harm we were doing, and how successful we were at hiding it from ourselves. We know when we are beginning to be forgiven because our heart starts to break. That’s the moment when we stumble into reality. It’s a Thomistic intuition: the form which forgiveness takes in a person’s life is contrition, a breaking of heart, from the Latin cor triturare.

However, God has no desire to break our heart as some sort of punishment or act of violence against us. Quite the contrary: it’s because sin’s tendency is to make our heart too small. And God’s desire is to give us a bigger heart, one more capable of desire, more sensitive and supple. The breaking is not to destroy hearts. It is rather a breaking open that gives us a chance to grow.

Whence then this forgiveness, borne by the Holy Spirit? It comes, of course, from a single source, whether we know it or not. That source is Jesus Christ, who died and rose for us. It is because he occupied the space of violence, shame, vengeance, and death. And did so for us. That space from which we are so inclined to flee. We do everything possible for someone else to occupy that space, that oh-so-just seeming violence, so necessary for saving situations, or at least appearances. It is this space which we call “sin” which Jesus occupied for us, undoing by means of his death all the power it had to dominate our lives. And at the same time opening up for us the Way by which we become free to act in imitation of him for others, without fear of the consequences for ourselves in doing so.

This key of Wisdom, which is the cross of Christ, has been around a long time. It’s been at work through long centuries of apprenticeship right up to our time. Right up to and including this moment when we are beginning to speak truthfully, as sisters and brothers, about matters LGBT.

The Wisdom of the Cross works by making us suspicious of our own righteousness when we find ourselves involved in yet another collective murder like the one which Jesus underwent. As René Girard pointed out, it wasn’t because we became more rational that we stopped burning witches. It was because we could no longer really believe in their guilt that we became more rational. You have no need to look for distant and impersonal causes for things if you have to hand a quick and easy way to solve a local social problem: a little light scapegoating. It is changes in ways of relating which produce changes in rationality, not the other way round. As we became capable of laying aside the false accusations, the passions, and the lynching weapons we had to hand, so we became capable of learning our way into reality.

When it comes to matters gay, it is, curiously, the “invention” of heterosexuality, which offers us a key insight into this learning process. Starting in the 17th century in northern France, the Low Countries and southern England what social historians call “Companionate marriage” began to appear ever more frequently. The traditional notion of marriage began to shift. Now the couple were not only spouses, but also each other’s best friend, intellectual and emotional mates. Something which, when it had happened earlier, was the cause of surprise to observers. Little by little our societies began to shift out of the homosociality which had prevailed up until then. Homosocial cultures being those in which, from a fairly young age, the social life of girls and women is among themselves, and that of boys and men likewise. With arranged marriages and more or less well-chaperoned social interaction. Nowadays we find our heterosexualised culture so natural that the ancient way of living together, still prevalent in several Islamic countries, seems bizarre to us. But in historical terms, it is our cultural adventure which is the novelty.

We had a good laugh when Ahmadinejad claimed that there are no gays in Iran. But what he was saying, imagining his country as still homosocial, was not as stupid as it sounds. Because there where there aren’t any “straights” there aren’t any “gays” either. There are, of course, a minority of men who have sex with men, and women with women, but in a way that is as discreet and invisible as is necessary for survival. That’s how the huge traditional “don’t ask, don’t tell” of homosocial groupings works.

However, it was the gradual decline of the homosocial world in western countries which allowed us to understand something about people who were previously invisible. People who became visible in the degree to which they found themselves as misfits in a new countryside, facing new and different sorts of violence. It’s from the early seventeenth century that the first “molly houses”, pubs, and cruising areas begin to emerge. Meeting places for these weird people who didn’t find themselves at home in the new world of heterosexuality. And of course, where for the first time they became the objects of what we would now call “police attention”.

I’ve no need to take up your time going through the research which Michel Foucault gave us in his history of sexuality. My Girardian reading of the same history is not an accusatory one. It merely bathes the same facts in a different perspective. I understand them to show how God’s forgiveness of us humans has taken the form of a progressive loss of faith in the guilt and dangerousness of these pariahs. It took some four hundred years for what had been considered in mediaeval times under the rubric of “sin”, one particularly present in the monastic or clerical milieu, to change face. In the early modern world that “sin” became a “crime” then turned into a “sickness”. Then a “mental health” issue, before finally, in the later nineteenth century becoming a “psychological” problem. Which is to say that from the moment it started to become “visible” this matter was always treated as a social problem to be sorted out in some way or other. Even as, little by little, its supposed dangerousness became ever less credible.

Several factors came together finally to allow, in the 1950’s, a genuinely scientific moment to consolidate. These factors included the mass demobilisation of hundreds of thousands of young men and women following two world wars. Among them, many who had for the first time met others like themselves, whether under arms or in armaments factories. These were able to move to big cities where they would find still others like themselves, rather than return home to small rural communities. The twentieth century made small apartment living, and thus relative privacy, ever more normal a part of big city life. So, people untroubled by their “homosexuality” began to be able to say: “Yes, I am, and so what?”. For the first time a critical mass of “subjects” who didn’t present as “problems” became available, and the nascent disciplines of psychology and psychiatry began to recognise their inability to point to any pathology that was intrinsic to a same-sex orientation. It turns out that, allowing for normal minority stress factors, gay and lesbian people are just as screwed up as everyone else. No less, but no more.

That, as I see it, is where we have something new. The moment when we give up on the lens of “here is a social problem that needs solving”, a perception born of the scapegoat mechanism. And now we begin at last to reach for an authentically scientific lens: “What is this stable reality, where does it come from, how does it work, and what is it for?”. Please note that it was not owing to the genius of great thinkers that we reached this point. Rather it was the relational presence of a critical mass of people relatively untroubled by what they are which allowed scientific observers to understand something real. The reality in question, observed in almost all societies over the millennia, had been treated as either a vice or some sort of pathology. Or in some societies as a sign of spiritual power, or its inverse, an abomination. But at last, it began to be recognised, and lived with, as a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. Which is to say, something both real and banal.

I’ve been describing for you the shifts in social relationships which were both necessary and sufficient for a scientific discovery to be made. One which as it establishes itself as real, begins to sweep aside the accusations, lies and forms of contempt which had dominated discussion heretofore.

Since the 1950’s more and more people, starting in western countries, have recognised that this perception is right. Especially as they personally came to meet and to know people now calling themselves “gay” or “lesbian”. It is this that has allowed God’s forgiveness to unfurl itself in such a way that reconciled life in this area becomes thinkable and liveable. In other words, a reconciled life such as is lived with ever less concern in many western countries. Above all in those countries which are tributaries of Catholic and Protestant culture. Countries formed within the historic tension between Pope and Emperor, Faith and Enlightenment. The same historical tensions, in fact, which, over the centuries, threw up the conditions of possibility of the scientific method.

This same reconciled life is desired intensely by many, many young people who, although they live in countries where this truth has not yet been received, long to inhabit it. They are paying very dearly, even with their lives, for the privilege of being able to rejoice in who they are, to incarnate what they know themselves to be. Even as many of them, and of us, are aware that such a reality, which took hundreds of years to emerge in particular cultural circumstances, cannot be transferred immediately into another culture without producing seismic upheavals. Though neither can we ever allow “culture” to become a justification for majority violence. To do so would be to backslide on things we learned to be true the hard way: through our own partial overcoming of our own majority violence.

Why did I want to start with this short historical introduction? Well, not in order to critique “heteronormativity”. I’m delighted by the world of discoveries opened up by our invention of heterosexuality over the last centuries. With all that they offer to the immense majority of women and men in terms of freedom and justice. And in having made across-the-board equality between women and men increasingly unavoidable.

No, I’ve given you this narrative because, if you wish to talk with us, and you’d like us to help you move forward, the question of the reality from within which we’ll be speaking to each other is inescapable. The question of how to live our lives according to the truth has been central to the conscience formation of each one of us. So, you will be embarking on conversations at a level of equality with people whose conscience has been formed by a tough first-person journey into truthfulness.

As Christians, and between Christians, as Amoris Laetitia makes clear, there is no other level on which conversation can take place than that of equality. There is no true and binding paternal voice in the Church. Since the coming of Christ, God’s voice has been and is inescapably fraternal. And, driven by the Holy Spirit, every true learning process is horizontal, between us. If you find yourselves wanting to hold on to some paternal voice, and thus to teach from on high, then you find yourselves in reverse gear, heading for a world even more idolatrous than our own.

This conversation we’re beginning to undertake, I’ve been dwelling in it personally for over fifty years. And in public for almost forty. The one thing that I can tell you that has been constant, slow but constant, throughout these years, is the horizontal arrival among us of truthful reality. The recognition that a stable same-sex orientation is a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition has become ever more surely held and pacifically accepted by both scientists and the population at large. As has the sense that those of us who are the bearers of this minority variant become more functional, more stable, happier, and more capable of rich human relationships in the degree to which we accept this truth as a formative part of our lives, part of our capacity for contributing to the flourishing of others and ourselves.

To judge by the number of people with whom I have spoken about these issues, from every continent, over the last forty years, I am by no means alone in having taken a long journey towards self-acceptance. And as has been the case for many of my peers, my way has been penitential. Little by little my heart has been broken by God who was forgiving me my idolatries, my false securities, my desire to escape being who I am and instead to become someone else, my running away from being loved as I am. I’ve had to learn to recognize, and to distinguish between, the truth which comes from God, and the lies which flow from those who take themselves to be the defenders of God’s truth, and who seek so firmly to police belonging in the Church. I’ve had to learn that it is no small temptation to go along with the clerical game, to advance professionally, but at the price of keeping silent about what is the truth of my life, as it is that of so, so many of my brother priests.  It is a temptation which opens the way to a very grave sin: that of having won the world and lost my soul.

Those of us who have known hell’s flames licking close have a thirst for the truth. For we know that to avoid those flames and to become a real Christian, a real human being, one must above all avoid self-delusion about what is real, about what the Creator is bringing into being. Many of us have already worked through, on a psychological and spiritual level, so many of the arguments which Church authority has come up with as it has sought to impose another “reality”, one more convenient for its institutional customs. Those arguments do not convince, whatever the so-called authority of those who wield them. Because they all imagine that the reality which has shown us who we are, over a long stretch of time, and through innumerable confirmations, doesn’t come from God.

So, let us imagine that, as in the past, you might want to take public positions, for instance, concerning our marriages, or our ability to exercise certain jobs, or our aptitude for adoption, for maternity or paternity. For as long as these positions continue to flow from your basic premise, the one which seeks to oblige us to deduce who we are negatively, from an a priori founded in the marital act open to procreation, they will have zero capacity to convince us, or, increasingly, anyone of good will, of anything at all. Can you face up to the fact that the premise is false? For you to maintain your system it is necessary that we accept that we are defective straight people. Nevertheless, if we don’t accept that, it’s not because we are especially perverse rebels, or dangerously disobedient, but because it is not true.

To be faithful to your system, you can’t really talk with us. Because we are not the people you need us to be for you to be able to talk to us. You can talk, as you have in the past, about us, describing us as a “they” or a “them”. The great challenge which faces you is that if you do decide to talk with us, this very fact itself involves the recognition of a reality for which you lack a true description.

Let’s try to be rigorous. Traditionally there have only been two sources from which the Church has sought to deal with this question. On the one hand, certain Bible texts, and on the other hand, certain reasoned deductions from our so-called “natural law”. From the Bible texts nothing at all can be deduced with any certainty concerning the non-pathological minority variant in the human condition which we call “homosexuality”. At most those texts can help us critique violent and abusive cultural practices. But we are now able very clearly to distinguish between such practices on the one hand, and on the other, those relationships which flow from a deep orientation and are exercised in freedom by those sharing a certain social equality.

With relation to the current version of natural law held by the Roman Congregations in this area we can say something with absolute certainty. To deduce what people are from a traditional prohibition against acts which would be contrary to something these same people are neither doing nor trying to do is a feat of logical circularity. And circular logic never truly offers new information about anything at all. But what is more important than this is the recognition that, these two non-sources aside, there is in fact no other source in divine revelation that has anything to say about this reality. What we have instead is the horizontal and relational way God’s Wisdom makes the intelligible reality of Creation present in our midst so as to show us God’s love for us. There is no external authority for that. Only the fraternal authority that helps keep us together in unity as we navigate our ecclesial induction into reality.

So, neither Scripture, Tradition, nor Natural Law has ever known how to recognise or speak truthfully about this reality. Hardly surprising, given that our recognition of it as a non-pathological minority variant is so very recent. Nonetheless, this recognition did come about in our midst as the Holy Spirit’s dynamic followed exactly the path foretold by Jesus in chapters 15 and 16 of John’s Gospel. You will be choosing to talk with people who have been formed by that path into truthfulness, and who have accepted that they have been formed by reality in this way. No one is obliged to enter into reality, but reality itself does invite us all into it with friendship. That’s part of what is meant by the doctrine of Creation.

The conversation by which we begin to work out what may be genuine Church teaching in this area is one into which Church authority is only now daring to step. I suspect that that daring will take the form of a shy recognition that we gay and lesbian people, with all the failings which we share with the rest of humanity, are capable of learning to tell the truth. That our first-person narrative is that of a daughter or son of God in good conscience. A sinner, doubtless; mistaken about many things, of course; but not radically deluded as to who we are. I suspect also that God will make all of us witnesses to the “why?”, the “wherefore?” the “for what?” behind God’s blessing humanity with such a bizarre gift. Just so long as we help each other share God’s forgiveness and so enter together into Created reality as heirs of the Kingdom.

I leave you with the words of Gaudium et Spes 36.2, which I hope will be paradigmatic for our work.

If by the autonomy of earthly affairs we mean that created things and societies themselves enjoy their own laws and values which must be gradually deciphered, put to use, and regulated by men, then it is entirely right to demand that autonomy. Such is not merely required by modern man, but harmonizes also with the will of the Creator. For by the very circumstance of their having been created, all things are endowed with their own stability, truth, goodness, proper laws and order. Man must respect these as he isolates them by the appropriate methods of the individual sciences or arts. Therefore if methodical investigation within every branch of learning is carried out in a genuinely scientific manner and in accord with moral norms, it never truly conflicts with faith, for earthly matters and the concerns of faith derive from the same God. Indeed whoever labors to penetrate the secrets of reality with a humble and steady mind, even though he is unaware of the fact, is nevertheless being led by the hand of God, who holds all things in existence, and gives them their identity. Consequently, we cannot but deplore certain habits of mind, which are sometimes found too among Christians, which do not sufficiently attend to the rightful independence of science and which, from the arguments and controversies they spark, lead many minds to conclude that faith and science are mutually opposed.

James Alison
Lyon, Paris, Madrid, December 2021