Holy Spirit at Work? – James Alison

In a penetrating article on his website, noted theologian James Alison examines the recent furores in the Church over matters gay, and reaches what he calls a ‘suprising’ conclusion.    There is a huge amount of meat in here, which requires long and deliberate chewing (as always with Alison), so I cannot attempt to cover it all, certainly not after just one read.  It is though, an important and hopeful post, so I do want to share what seem to me to be some of the most important issues.

Being the thoughtful theologian that he is, Alison has deliberately avoided the temptation some of us fell into of responding in the heat of the moment to the flurry of apparent slights to the LGBT community in the closing weeks of last year and early this year.  Instead, he has given the issues time to settle, and responded only after careful (and no doubt, prayerful) reflection.  His conclusions are all the more important for this. Note, by the way, that he has entirely ignored the latest kerfuffle over SPXX – the dust is still settling on that one, and it is in any case only incidentally an issue of the church and homosexuality, which is Alison’s sole focus.

In examining the widely publicised curial address before Christmas, Alison notes (as others have done), that homosexuality is not directly mentioned at all – although he concedes that there is some reference to social constructions of gender, he finds that ” in the end, I don’t know what he was referring to. Not for the first time, his style tends to leave hostages to fortune.” For him, the importance of the address does not lie in any “donnish sideswipes” at homosexuality or gender issues, but at the deeper core of the message and four points on the workings of the Holy Spirit (of which the fuss was about just half of one of these points).  In drawing attention to the holy Spirit, Alison finds grounds for encouragement:

“If the Roman Curia, which he was addressing, regularly understood its task as responding to the Spirit rather than applying laws, we would certainly be a better Church.”

This is just the point I made (with far less insight and clarity) in my own response to the full text, but which I have not yet seen elsewhere.   The importance of this for LGBT persons, he elaborates in further reflection on how Benedict sees his role in the Church as the representative of Peter.  To make sense of this, I must first refer to two other recent incidents – one widely, but inaccurately, reported, the other not reported at all in the popular press.

Referring to the outcry over the document on seminary training, and the popular outcry at the time over its claims about ‘homosexual’ activities in seminaries, Alison notes that this document in fact barely mentions the subject.  The main focus lay elsewhere entirely, and much of the popular commentary focused on quotations that simply did not appear in this recent document .  I will not go into how this misreporting arose: what is important is to contrast the tone of this recent document with an earlier one, of  2005. In this, Alison finds evidence of retreat from the earlier hostility:

“My take on it is that it is transitional, as though a new team at the Dicastery for Catholic Education were trying to move on from the hole into which Cardinal Grocholewski and the 2005 document forbidding gay people to enter the priesthood had got them.”

The other important event was completely bypassed in the popular press, but is probably the most significant of all. This is an article  from the January 7th 2009 edition of Avvenire by Vittorino Andreoli:

“The article, one in a long series about priesthood, is about priests and homosexuality, and its author is a respected mainstream doctor and psychiatrist. While making the usual appropriate acts of reverence to the teaching authority of the Church in moral matters, and the right of the Church to choose whomsoever it wants for its presbyterate, what is striking about the article is that its author is perfectly clear and straightforward that he does not consider it to be scientifically acceptable to regard homosexuality as a form of sickness.”  (This please note, not in a newspaper like the Guardian, but in the official organ of the italian Bishops’ Conference. )

“The first two documents in Church history to try to say something professional about homosexuality … both sought to define homosexuality in such a way that it could not be regarded as something neutral. ….And yet now, quietly, and without much fanfare, it rather looks as though it is perfectly possible publicly to maintain the opposite position in a properly Catholic context without fear of immediate retribution. Proper discussion has broken out.”

From this, together with his lengthy and tightly reasoned reflections on the earlier events, Alison appears to conclude that the Holy Spirit is presently at work in the Church, guiding  Benedict as the representative of Peter on earth, together with some other infulential figures, to prepare the Church for a gradual recognition of the past errors on matters of homosexuality, and to bring it into the modern world.

I have drawn attention previously to other notable theologians who are discerning signs of just this current action of the Holy Spirit transforming the Vatican.  Alison is the latest of several, but he is the first I have come across to reason the case so tightly, with such clear presentation of the evidence.

There is much else in this article that is worth taking on board:  a poignant reflection at the beginning,  on the pain inflicted by the church on its LGBT people; a  fascinating observation  that in their divergent approaches to the emerging issue of same sex marriages or civil unions in so many countries across the world, many national bishops’ conferences are taking positions directly in conflict with the Vatican’s own directive; the interplay of awareness by the Vatican press corps of the closeted gay lives of certain prelates, and those prelates’ own awareness of that knowledge.   All these have a fascination of their own.

The overriding message of this article though, appears to be a simple one:  Benedict has recognised, or is coming to recognise, that past hostility to ‘homosexuals’ has been misplaced, and is leading the hierarchy through a process of downplaying past condemnations, which will lead in turn to an increasing recognition of the need for a new theology of homosexuality.  This is a development, says Alison, that he has long anticipated, but it is occurring sooner, and more subtly, than he had expected.

It is this perception that explains the second part of his title :    “The Pain and the Endgame: Reflections on a Whimper.”

I have not remotely covered all that is important in this article:  I hope I have shown you that is worth going to for yourself.  To quote Josephus on Salus Animarum, who drew my attention to it:

Tolle, lege! (Take up and read!)

Thank you, James Alison.

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