Spirit, Witness, and Learning: Fiducia Supplicans and the LGBT endgame in the Catholic ChurchSpirit, Witness, and Learning: 

De Lubac Lecture, Saint Louis University, 29 February 2024

First of all, I would like to thank you very much indeed for inviting me to give this prestigious lecture. It is the first in this series since the French Bishops announced their intention to seek the canonization of the great Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac. And I hope to honour him, even when I have no idea at all how he would have received what I have to say. So far have things moved on concerning the matter about which I will speak since the years of his active contributions that it would be foolish to compare what was barely mentionable then and what can be talked about now. I hope nonetheless that he would have appreciated being taken as a model for a theological endeavour which has endured “dark years”, as he described his own experience of marginalisation at the hands of Church authority. And yet this is combined with a hope that it might eventually find its place within a renewed mainstream, as was his experience after Vatican II.


I will begin with a conversation I had with the distinguished Scottish Dominican Theologian Fergus Kerr OP in the early 1990’s. I asked him whether he thought it possible that the Church might eventually change its teaching on homosexuality. After a pause, he expressed doubt that such a thing could happen, adding laconically “the Church just doesn’t have a mechanism with which to change something like that”. This struck me at the time as an answer both interesting and insightful, coming from someone with thorough knowledge of the historical mechanisms of the Catholic Church. Over the next few years, as it became clearer to me from my own experience that there is a truth deficit in the life of the Church in this area, I discovered that the issue of truthfulness could scarcely be raised or even mentioned without incurring great violence from the clerical set-up. Fergus Kerr was exactly right: there is no internal mechanism to allow such a change. And so, given that as a Catholic I must believe that the attempt to use Jesus to enforce something untrue on people could not succeed in the long term, the question became: OK, absent a mechanism to allow such a change, how will the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Truth, make the necessary transformations to allow so many of us to be re-aligned with what is true, to make us bearers of the Gospel, preachers of grace, rather than purveyors of condemnation, hidden behind violently policed closet-doors.

Over the last thirty years this question: “what is the Spirit doing?” And this other question. “How to be aligned to it?” have gradually pushed themselves to the forefront of my consciousness, as they have to that of many other people. This means raising a series of subtle questions for which the answers have not been obvious ever since Jesus baffled Nicodemus by telling him “The wind blows where it wills, and you hear the sound thereof, but you cannot tell whence it comes, and whither it goes: so is every one that is born of the Spirit.” For unless talk of the Spirit is simply to be a way of tacking divinity onto our feelings and our driven-ness, it has to be received from a narrative other than our own, one which is of someone else coming upon us, doing something to us, working through us to produce something bigger than we could have imagined.


The classic narrative moment concerning the Holy Spirit[1] is the scene from Acts 10 in which the Spirit comes down upon the Gentiles, and surprises Peter into calling for their Baptism. Let me recall for you both the scene, and, at least as important, the set-up for it. These give us some hints as to what is really going on. An angel appears to a devout Roman Centurion while he was praying. The Centurion, called Cornelius, was a regular at Jewish Synagogue with his household: not a convert to Judaism but rather what Jews called a “God-fearer”: someone who had accepted Mosaic preaching concerning God, but without taking on the full yoke of conversion. By Jewish standards, a good thing, but a second-class citizen. The Angel instructs him to send messengers to bring Peter from Joppa to talk to them. About what, the Angel does not say. The Centurion obeys, sending some members of his household. Thus, the Holy Spirit appears to be setting something up that could not have been obvious to anybody at all.

Peter, meanwhile, is on a rooftop waiting for his lunch when he falls into a reverie and is given a vision of a sail being lowered in which are wrapped every sort of beast, both clean and unclean. He is told to “sacrifice and eat”, which as an observant Jew he could not do. Three times he is told this, and three times he refuses, saying that he has never eaten anything profane (as opposed to holy for the Temple) or unclean (as opposed to pure or clean), the criteria received by the people of Israel from Aaron and Moses on God’s command in Leviticus. While Peter is musing on this vision, which might of course have been satanic, and mulling over its threefold nature, he hears a great sound from outside, made by the messengers from Cornelius who have arrived. That sound, φωνήσαντες in Greek, is the same verb as the crowing of the cock he had heard in the High Priest’s courtyard on a previous occasion he had engaged in a triple denial. There he had refused to associate himself with someone who was in the process of being made both profane and unclean en route to being handed over to the Gentiles. The repeated sound must have contributed to convincing him that here something more than a satanic vision was at work.

By the time Peter and a few colleagues arrive at Cornelius’ house, he has understood enough of what he had been shown to risk impurity by going inside. Then in short order he makes the first, and only, Petrine decree of which we have record in Scripture, one to which he himself later refers as having been accepted as oracular by the other members of the apostolic group[2]. He declares first that “God has shown me to call no human profane or unclean”, and shortly thereafter, he goes further, understanding that “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears God and does what is right is acceptable to him”. Peter then goes into his stump speech about Jesus of Nazareth, emphasizing how Jesus had been put to death under the curse of God by being hanged from a tree, but turned out to be God’s anointed one and the fount of forgiveness for all who believe in him. Before he gets to the end of his speech, the Holy Spirit falls on the assembled Gentile listeners, and their reaction astounds Peter and his Jewish colleagues. They see that it is for these Gentiles as it had been for them on the day of Pentecost and thereafter. Thus, Peter orders them to be baptised, the first sign that the holiness of God had been publicly recognised as moving beyond the exclusive range of the people whom God had previously ordered to be holy by being set apart from the nations. Set apart by precisely those laws distinguishing the holy from the profane, and the pure from the impure which Peter had found himself publicly authorised to abrogate.

So, this, the biblical account of the unbinding of heaven for the Gentiles is, I would posit, an appropriate place from which to work out the shape of the unexpected narrative being driven by the Holy Spirit in matters LGBT. The process of the acceptance of Peter’s decision was long and contested, with “brothers from Jerusalem” attempting to impose a harder line on potential converts than Peter’s. But his decision did indeed turn out to have been infallible, to have altered the world in a way that cannot be rolled-back. However often we are tempted to backslide, as notoriously we have been with relation to the indigenous peoples of the Americas and to Black people. And the way Peter described it has stood:

“And God, who knows the human heart, testified to them by giving them the Holy Spirit, just as he did to us; and in cleansing their hearts by faith he has made no distinction between them and us.”

Please notice something vital about this. Peter indicates that God knows the human heart and that the gift of the Holy Spirit to the Gentiles not only made them insiders in the life of God, but was actually God’s way of bearing witness, on their behalf, to Peter and his Jewish colleagues. And that witness was that despite many ritually different and repugnant things that Gentiles might do, they are, as to the heart, no different to those who observe Torah. The witness of the Holy Spirit works to convince Peter and the others of similarity rather than difference.


I ask you, in your imaginations, to freeze the frame in the moment between the Holy Spirit coming down on Cornelius’ household, and Peter’s command that they be baptised. I think that is where we “are” in matters LGBT at the moment, and I invite you to walk with me as I engage in some very slow-motion un-freezing of the frame. 

With no mechanism to appeal to, but at least with some sort of narrative concerning how the Holy Spirit might change things, I’m going to look at each one of the four “notes” of the Church which we find in the creed where it says that we believe, we receive faith, on the inside of the “calling out” – the ekklesía or Church – which is One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic. These notes are dynamic dimensions of the life of the Spirit which give shape to the Church, and without which the Church is not what it claims to be.

a) One

Let us look first at the Oneness. This is because God is one. And because God’s act of coming into the world to overcome sin, death, and shame on the Cross so as to give us the Holy Spirit was a single act, once and for all. All the ripples therefrom are the result of a single stone cast into the lake. And this single act had as its intention to make possible the reconciled living together of humanity as one[3]. So there is no way of being Church that doesn’t include becoming a living sign that something counterfactual is coming upon us: a collaborative unity among all humans living at peace with each other, a sign of our having been empowered to get beyond our rivalries and the need for cheap meaning grasped at another’s expense.

However, oneness can have its dangers. For any lived experience of a group’s unity is the experience of sharing a norm. And to the degree in which the norm is historical, it always runs the risk of defining itself by a negative. The unity of the United States was formed historically by the rejection of a monarchical form of government and by the adoption of a written constitution. In principle neither the Kingdoms of England or of Scotland could be invited, just as they are, to become states of the United States. They’d have to discard the King and get used to having an elected governor instead.

In the case of the current teaching of the church concerning LGBT people, we find ourselves at a very interesting moment with relation to the norm which governs unity in sexual matters. It was a norm developed in the second century of our era, and it remains the official teaching of the Church up until now. This norm is simple: the only good sexual act is that which is between married people and is open to the possibility of procreation. Anything else is some sort of defection from that norm, and therefore is to some or other degree a bad thing.

Of course, in more recent centuries, it has been noted that the unitive function of the sexual act, increasing love and friendship between the couple, is a good thing. And after a tough fight, Church authority did concede that it is an appropriate “end” or purpose of sexual intercourse, provided that it never be separated deliberately from the procreative “end” or purpose, which was and is still seen as the “indispensible finality of the act”. Now, as you all know, whether or not straight couples, married or otherwise, are making a deliberate separation in this sphere is almost invariably invisible to outside observers. There is no way accurately to correlate the number of children a couple may have with their non-procreative sex acts. So the norm can remain in the realm of “to be devoutly believed, with no consequences for it not necessarily being practiced.”

The norm was only ever made to refer to “acts”, since the ancient world, and indeed, until very recently our own world, had no stable way of referring to those for whom the word “homosexual” was coined in 1869. However, over the last 150 years, as the terrible scapegoating of people we now call LGBT diminished in intensity it became possible to question whether what had previously been seen as “unnatural acts” more or less frequently performed by people whose “natural” being was in someway vitiated by those acts, were in fact unnatural. Or whether they weren’t perfectly “natural acts” corresponding to people who “simply are that way”. By the mid-1950’s it had become clear that gay and lesbian people, rather than being bearers of some disorder in their intrinsically heterosexual natures, were bearers of a regularly occurring non-pathological minority variant in the human condition. In other words, the “acts” and our “being” had a different relationship to each other than the one assumed by the norm.

What has also happened since the 1950’s is that the world in which gay and lesbian people needed to be invisible for our survival has also gone, and that therefore not only we as individuals, but our partnerships have become visible, legally protected and in many cases celebrated not only by ourselves, but by family and friends. And it is this visibility of our partnerships which challenges the norm. For implicitly our visible partnerships are saying: “We are fully capable of living the ‘unitive’ function of sexual acts over time, and can bear witness to the positive effects this has in our lives. From the moment it became clear that “we just are this way”, rather then defective heterosexuals, the fact that our unitive acts are not open to procreation is a simple biological observation, but not a moral one at all. For why should we be obligated to derive the morality of our acts from something we are not?”

So please notice what has happened here: the norm used to cover all eventualities, with the assumption that any acts going against it were defective forms of something good. Defective forms which could be repented of, and for which, in many cases, subjectively, there might be no guilt at all. However the recognition of the non-pathological minority variant, something genuinely learned about the human condition, provokes a problem for the norm. For it transforms the norm, a way of keeping everybody together with no one, in principle, being outside it, from a source of unity into a source of discrimination. And the key factors here are: the public visibility of stable and legally protected relationships whose participants are celebrating them as something good. And that they are doing so following on from the thoroughly Catholic logic that this regularly occurring minority variant in the human condition comes from the Creator, and therefore has, imbued within it, an end, a telos, a “being for something beyond itself” that in some way gives God glory starting from what it is. And that this is a matter of an experienced blessing for them

So, what is the Church going to do? Either it can go down the road of “oneness” in the worldly, or totalitarian sense, in which the “oneness” is always by contrast with some excluded outcast from the norm, whose ways serve to remind people of their belonging. Or it can do what we saw in the case of Peter and the Gentiles: recognise that the new Oneness is supposed to have a norm which is not a burden to some by contrast with others. In this case, it will be recognised that there is a perfectly good case for good unitive acts which form same-sex coupledom. And they need no further justification or condemnation by deduction from the possibility of procreation. And that of course, if this applies to gay and lesbian people, then of course it must also apply to straight people. After all, the only difference between the vast majority of unitive but non-procreative straight sexual acts and that of gay ones is that of the regular visibility of the couples nourished in this way[4] in the case of the latter.

It is the relatively new visibility of something real which challenges the norm. And the norm never thought of itself as denying reality, but of enabling what it assumed were wayward straight people to be shepherded into discovering the truth of their desires. However, there is no denying that, ever since we have recognised that a stable same-sex orientation is something that just is, so the norm that used to be assumed to be intrinsic, proper, to the nature of all humans, has turned out, in fact, to be extrinsic to the nature of a regularly occurring and non-negligeable proportion of the population. And Christianity knows no extrinsic laws. The norm which properly sustains oneness is in the process of being changed before our eyes.

b) Holy

The next dimension of the life of the Spirit is that of holiness. The utter aliveness of God made available to humans at Pentecost was no longer confined to the Holy Place in the Temple. It was then shared with the Gentiles. And what “being holy” looks like is the sort of coming alive that occurs in those who are “being forgiven”. It seems bizarre to have to repeat it, but there is no holiness among humans other than that which flows from being forgiven. No sort of impenitent rigidity can ever be holy, nor can self-righteous rule-keeping. No judging of others. This is because God is not a nagging moralist who insists on us jumping through hoops of pretending to be sorry for something so that he will give us something extra called forgiveness. It is because our hearts, wonderful in themselves, are too small. Enclosed in fear, rivalry, and shame, inclined to take short cuts to security and happiness even when this means treading on others. God’s gift of God’s Spirit includes the breaking open of our hearts so that we can receive a much bigger heart, a much bigger security, and the knowledge that we can relax into the surety that we will be given who we are to become over time without needing to grab portions of junk meaning. The gift of repentence just is the gift of the breaking open of our hearts to become bigger. That is what forgiveness looks like in our lives.

So, when it comes to wondering about the narrative propelled by the Holy Spirit amidst matters LGBT, what are we looking at? Once again, the answer would have been easy had the old norm not been challenged by a new recognition of reality. In the old norm forgiveness could be seen in the breaking of heart of sodomitical sinners as we realised what we had been doing, renounced our evil ways, and embraced a life of purity and the attempt to extinguish our evil desires, now to be borne as a Cross. However, that view depended on those acts being seen as resulting from some sort of vice or sickness which tended to defile and corrupt the person’s true being. However, once we came to understand that a same-sex orientation is no sort of defect from, or corruption of, a person’s true being, but is that perfectly banal thing: a non-pathological minority variant in the human condition, then of course it is something that cannot be forgiven. Any more than left handedness can be forgiven. It becomes something from which acts will flow which will be contingently good or bad according to circumstance, context and consequence. The acts are therefore capable of being forgiven when they are bad, and are constitutive of virtuous shared life when they are good. And in the case of something as important as a person’s capacity to love someone else profoundly, learning to humanise the ways and occasions in which that is appropriately sexual, including getting things wrong, will be a vital part of growing up.

One of the things that has certainly been my experience, and I know I am not alone in this, is that when I lived as though the norm were true, thinking that I was a defective heterosexual and that therefore that any sort of partnership was forbidden me, I was simultaneously a frequent sinner and yet incapable of real sin. For when everything is a sin, nothing is a sin. It was only when I accepted and understood for myself the implications for Catholic faith of the “just is” quality of the orientation that I was able both to sin and not to sin, to distinguish between things that were evil, things that were bad, things that were silly, but no more serious than that, and things that were good. It was only in being forgiven for having resisted God’s grace in creating me as God wanted, not as I wanted, that I was able to begin to receive a bigger heart. No one can be forgiven for being gay, but a gay person can be forgiven for failing to live up to his or her potential, for cowardice, for acting out of fear, for not daring to become generous, for failing to take risks, not learning to give ourselves away with lightness of heart, just as a straight person can.

Now what implications does this have for the holiness of the Church? Well, it suggests that, by continuing to judge gay and lesbian people according to its current norm, the Church is running a great risk of succumbing to something that is the very reverse of the holiness given by the Spirit. While it was not clear that being gay is just something that is, and the acts flowing from it are good or bad according to context, then of course the holiness of the Church could be maintained by being as merciful as possible to anybody who confessed their bad acts. They were not, simply by virtue of being who they are, outsiders. However, as it becomes clear that we are simply something that is, then the maintenance of the norm ceases to be a way of enabling shared holiness to be lived by everyone. On the contrary, it begins to create a sort of holiness which is over and against a particular group of unholy people. And this means that the Church is not itself undergoing forgiveness by coming to recognise in certain others “people like us”. It may in fact come to mean that the Church considers itself as especially holy in resisting seeing “us as like them”. In other words, it is retreating back into a pre-Pentecost model of holiness, which means: it is ceasing to be the Church. I’ll have more to say on this when we come to the question of witness, but for now let us move on to the note of Catholicity.

c) Catholic

I take it that Catholicity is the dimension of wholeness which comes from not being over against anything at all. If universality is a one-size-fits-all wholeness which some central power can impose on local groups and peoples considered to be inferior, then it is a parody of Catholicity. For Catholicity presupposes that the giving of the same Spirit will happen wherever the crucified and risen Christ is recognised at the heart of whatever culture, nation or tribe is present. And it will make itself known simultaneously in undoing all the elements of that culture which tended to depend on scapegoating and on sacrifice, while beautifying and affirming the elements of that culture which can be shared non-violently with others. This non-homogenizing tendency to wholeness is always discovered from within by each culture as it runs up against its own tendency to scapegoat and to sacrifice. This is why Catholicity is intimately linked with groups and individuals discovering themselves forgiven for things which they had taken for granted as “sacred” and normal – in other words with holiness. And also why it is always stretching beyond any attempt to reduce one-ness, unity, to something totalitarian and numerical.

In the case of our freeze frame of Acts 10, the dynamic of Catholicity is especially visible in the shock of Peter and his colleagues. They could perhaps imagine having arrived, as if from central HQ, to explain to these second-class citizens why they should adopt a new and superior way of life. What they couldn’t imagine, and what shook them, was the gradual realisation, as the Spirit came down on the Gentiles that it was not they from Jerusalem who were offering something from a position of superiority: “you can become like us if you do what we say” or “you can assimilate to us”. It was God inviting both groups to become something new, a new “we” that would affect both of them and change each other’s earlier self-conception of who “we” are for ever. The key recognition that it “is for them as it was for us” is the beginning of the undoing of a sacred frontier by means of which “we” make ourselves different from “them”. And it is likely to be resisted violently. In any group some, likely the weaker and less important, will receive with delight and relief their likeness with others who previously considered them, or were considered by them, “beyond the pale”. Meanwhile the stronger and more important will fear the loss of prestige and position which they will undergo as it becomes clear that a new “we” is being formed in which the previous “over against” is seen as a problem rather than as a strength. It is for this reason that the witness to Catholicity is usually martyrial, because the loss of sacred identity is accompanied by a violently allergic reaction.

I need hardly say that this is where I think we are in matters LGBT at the moment. All over the world Catholics as well as everyone else are getting used to the growing visibility of same-sex partners. And this turns out to be a truly stubborn reality, even in places that punish such people with prison and death. It turns out that once people get it into their heads that this is who they are, then risking death to have the experience of shared love, however briefly, is a price worth paying. However violent the culture is. And there is a martyrial quality here. For my generation at least it was loving one another through AIDS, and bearing witness to that love that taught many of us gay men that we had been found by the real thing. Some of us were maybe initially inclined to frivolity, going along with the role of the comic extra, and accepting dismissive downplayings of who we were, denigrations of our love as essentially hedonistic and self-centred. And yet we learned to stand up with dignity for our love as being from God, not to be gainsaid or downplayed.

Nevertheless, as that visibility has grown in confidence, so too the sacred allergy of those who detect the loss of a (false) sacred belonging has grown stronger. It is no longer even surprising to suggest that a very large proportion of the higher echelons of the Catholic clergy are undergoing this loss, and in some cases reacting with a violent sacred allergy. Many have sacrificed who they are so as to have an acceptable identity within what turns out to be a sacred caste; such people are particularly inclined to be gripped by this sacred allergy in the face of any suggestion that the Catholicity of the Church requires them to look in the mirror and sense that perhaps they are being nudged by the Spirit into seeing that “it is for them as it is for us”. This is particularly clear given the disfunctionality and mendacity of a necessarily furtive clerical gay life by contrast with ways of being which seem to bear the fruit of the Spirit in much more evident ways.

And now of course Fiducia Supplicans has made an apparently minor, but I think major, movement towards Catholicity in this sphere. Up until that document, official catholic statements had always managed to represent and “cover for” the voice of the sacred allergy, thus paralyzing any attempt to see the other as what we are. But here, for the first time, and without changing any doctrine at all, the official position puts the love of gay couples as within the sphere of the blessable. Thus, it leaves open the gaping wound of the sacred allergy, allowing it to become visible. For the first time it is the complicated clerical reaction to our own homosexuality that is left naked and public, as closet after closet bark out their terrified, and sometimes schismatic, self-hatred. But the Holy Father has clearly pointed the way to Catholicity: those you have rejected are those who will be a blessing to you in the degree to which you dare to bless them yourselves.

d) Apostolic

The final note is Apostolicity. This comes from the Greek word “ἀποστελλειν” meaning “to send” and refers in the first place to the “sent” quality of Jesus, and secondly to the sent quality of those whom Jesus “sends”. The classic phrase from John 20:21 is “As the Father sent me, so I send you”. In that phrase, curiously, the first “sent” is from ἀποστελλω, and the second is the more usual word for send, πεμπω. This suggests that the second form of sending, while like the first, is perhaps enclosed within it, belongs to it, rather than simply repeating it. Immediately thereafter, Jesus breathes Holy Spirit into them, fulfilling the gesture of the creation of humanity from Genesis 2:7 when the Lord breathed Spirit into Adam’s nostrils. He then tells them that of whomsoever they forgive the sins, those sins will be forgiven; and of whomsoever they retain them, they will be retained. In other words, no more “rescuing God swooping down from outside”. From now on the Creator Spirit of God will work through, and at, the human level, horizontally, via human protagonism. In so far as humans learn to desire the opening up of creation, letting each other go from the diminished forms to which we have been addicted, then it will be opened up. And in so far as we don’t dare to let each other go, we will be held back from the new creation. But God has given the entire decision-making process about such things into human hands.

Of course, initially those sent were called “apostles”, derived from the same verb. And the importance of this for us is that the element of Apostolicity, of sent-ness, is lived by real named people, who must learn, and discern, get things wrong and then get things right. Mary Magdalene was a penitent would-be holder-on to Jesus’ corpse. St Peter was a penitent traitor. St Thomas a penitent unbeliever. St Paul a penitent persecutor. Their holiness lay in their being forgiven and given a new chance to find something much richer than they could ever have imagined or been before. It is one of the great sadnesses of our Church that so few of those who become Bishops are genuinely penitent, rather than clerics formed by studied adherence to institutional goodness. Their lack of a genuinely penitential personal narrative is one of the reasons why they are so unfree. We currently have that rare thing, a penitent Pope, whose penitence is one of the reasons why he is so free.

And here is something difficult: many of our leaders hold to a sacrificial belonging within a righteous body that depends on an unalterable rule book interpreted by a pyramidical power structure. Such people can only ever have the title of apostle. But can never actually be sent. Because they discount the possibility of learning new things, of being able to unbind as well as to bind. They discount the possibility that the learning of the things of God will not come from themselves, but from apparently repugnant others who they will discover to be like themselves. The sent-ness by the Spirit implies people interacting with the frontiers of the apparent “other”. An “other” not to be condemned, but rather welcomed into Catholicity as its members’ own holiness of heart is perceived as making them part of a new and ever-expanding unity starting from where they are. That was exactly what happened when messengers were sent, at the behest of an angel, by a Gentile to an apostle, asking for an open-ended visit. And the apostle became the apostle as he interpreted both the Spirit and the authority he had received, as opening up heaven to the Gentiles, thus radically altering human history.

And so of course, that is where we are with matters LGBT. The apostolic dimension of the Church, which in our case is perhaps overly centralized around Petrine discernment, is now beginning to become aware that maybe we are just something that is, and so maybe our love can be blessed. Maybe we too are people who can be sent as witnesses, capable of bearing witness to Christ in the first person, as lesbian or gay people, without the need to hide that out of fear of martyrdom within the Church. Meanwhile, others, the same as are afflicted by the sacred allergy, refuse to enter into Apostolicity, preferring a world where it is not in the power of humans to unbind us all into a bigger creation. But where instead they can refuse to take responsibility for what is only their own human desire to keep things bound, by placing that responsibility onto some sort of god who has not been there ever since Jesus blew Holy Spirit into our nostrils.


The final question, and one I fear I shall treat much more briefly than I should, is that of the status of witness. Let us go back to the beginning, to Fergus Kerr’s comment that there seems to be “no mechanism for changing something like that” and my attempt to discover what might be the movement of the Holy Spirit in producing a change despite all mechanisms or their lack. We are left finally with something that is not initially a matter of authority, not initially a matter of ecclesiastical process, not initially a matter of revelation, not initially a matter of textual interpretation, but instead something much simpler, and much more vulnerable: some people bearing witness to the life of the Spirit, and some other people recognizing that “they are like us”. And who, therefore, can withhold appropriate institutional recognition?

I think we are already seeing this in the obvious ways in which more and more Catholic people rejoice in the coupling of their gay and lesbian relatives, colleagues, classmates, and friends; and simultaneously more and more Catholic people simply walk away from the life of the Church, giving as their principal reason the inability of the Church to welcome those same gay and lesbian relatives, colleagues, classmates, and friends. These are people who witness the growth, happiness, and goodness in the couples they see, and so become aware, explicitly or implicitly, that the Catholic Church is failing to live up to the notes which Jesus breathed into it. These people have accepted the witness, whether given intentionally or not, of the goodness of the love between such couples, and have recognized it as “like us”. The Oneness of the ekklesía is starting to push even the hierarchical structure of the Church into receiving oneness by changing its norm. Witness to this are the many blessing or wedding ceremonies for same-sex couples held discretely in Catholic Churches, and less discretely in other churches or meeting places. These are reported by those present, and here I am a personal witness, as occasions of great joy and simultaneously, of a delightful ordinariness, accompanied by a sense of “of course!”

I think many gay people are bearing witness to holiness in being forgiven for our self-hatred and inability or refusal to accept being loved by God as we are, or for having used our lack of self-acceptance as an excuse to fail to grow up and learn to love. And simultaneously, in learning to forgive those who are just like us, those like whom we might have become if we had remained wedded to a false notion of sacrificing ourselves so as to become something acceptable, but someone we are not. One of the true demands of holiness for a gay or lesbian person in the Catholic Church is to forgive those whom the clerical closet has turned into hateful caricatures of holiness, and their harmful machinations against us. Those who, under the last two pontificates before the current one, ran the roost around our Church leadership. To refuse to be reactive to such people, not to be run by resentment of them, not to give them free rental space in our heads is part of the process of standing up and becoming a witness to the effect of Christ’s love in our life. To be able to move forward creatively without being frightened by the outbreak of the sacred allergy which is accompanying the change burgeoning around us.

I suspect that gay people are bearing witness to Catholicity martyrially, by being prepared to lose power, position, influence, stable income, and prosperity because it is better to be dead than not to have loved. I think of friends who have lost jobs in Catholic institutions in this country[5], and responded without resentment, even when their accusers, groups like Church Militant, turned out to be far from the paragons of Catholic Apostolicity which they presented themselves as being. And that this too, especially in places where it is dangerous to be seen visibly as who we are, is a sign of great witness. I think of gay friends of mine who set up a refugee camp for HIV+ sex workers and refugees from terrible anti-gay violence in Uganda, migrating to somewhat less violent Kenya, producing joy in the midst of impossibility.

And finally, we are reaching the moment, at last, where we may be found to be witnesses within Apostolicity. The recent Synod not only proposed that Church understanding of gender identity and sexual orientation be rethought, following the inductive methodology of experience and the sciences, but it went further. It suggested that for these difficult and controverted matters, confidential meetings be held in which people could speak with frankness, and, for the first time ever, “those personally affected” be invited to speak. In other words, for the first time, a first-person witness in these areas is proposed.

We aren’t there yet, but the presence of people who are able in good conscience, and without fear to stand up, to bear witness to their lives in Christ, and to say that they do so as gay or lesbian people themselves, is the vital sign of what is to come next. For when a superior “we” speak about a “they”, there is no witness. However, now people can begin to speak to one other respectfully in the first person, “we” and “I”. Now the second person, “you” begins to be heard as a term of embrace rather than of fear, suspicion, or denigration. Thus, can Holy Spirit be glimpsed, and witnessed to, as having been bringing into being the new “We” all along.

[1] One which I have been considering since 1994, when John Milbank suggested it to me at a conference in Wiesbaden.

[2] Acts 15:7

[3] Jn 17, 21-23 “that they all may be one…”

[4] Those opposed to Fiducia Supplicans were particularly incensed by the document’s use of the word “couple”. They sense, rightly, that when a same-sex couple presents itself for a blessing, there is an obvious presumption of shared non-procreative sexual intimacy as at least partly constitutive of their coupledom. They object, therefore, that blessing the couple means blessing their union. In a later public interview (8th Feb 2024 Credere) the Holy Father resolved the matter rather beautifully (for those available to a resolution), by pointing out that when he blesses a same-sex couple, he is blessing “two people who love each other”.

[5] The USA, in which this lecture was initially delivered.

James Alison,
Albuquerque NM, St Louis MO, and Montreat NC, February/March 2024