The Synod convened by this remarkable Pope is now in session – and there are some reactionary voices being heard – as there should be. The head of the Polish church just described cohabitation as “the self-mutilation of [a couple’s] love”. He also noted with dismay that “some parents like to teach boys that they should clean up after themselves, and not wait until girls do it for them.” Ed Morrissey just reported that the opening statement by Cardinal Peter Erdo was also uncompromising: “Erdo emphasized that recognition of divorce and remarriage without a church finding of nullity in the first marriage ‘is impossible, while the first spouse is still alive.'”
And this is how it should be. Along with arguments about the need for pastoral change and adjustment – the Pope himself, after all, just married a previously divorced couple in the Vatican! – the arguments for no change at all need to be heard. What’s truly new about this papacy is its endorsement of this very debate – the very thing that John Paul II and Benedict XVI made anathema. Can you imagine this tweet appearing at any time since 1979 until now?
— Catholic News Svc (@CatholicNewsSvc) October 6, 2014
James Alison has taken up that offer. Last Friday he addressed a meeting in Rome for “The Ways of Love,” an international conference on Catholic pastoral care for gay and trans people. It’s not part of the Synod of Bishops on the Family. It’s an off-off-Broadway production, as it were. But it should not be dismissed for those reasons. Some of the most important discussions during the Second Vatican Council occurred informally off-site, and aired issues that emerged eventually as central to the Church’s opening to the modern world. The question of same-sex love and homosexual dignity is not likely to be part of the formal Synod. But it hovers around it – even as the Church in America has intensified its cruelty and unjust discrimination against homosexuals seeking to follow Jesus.
So you may be surprised to find in James’ latest talk in Rome an element of joy and magnanimity. He sees the emergence of gay and trans people’s own self-understanding of our equal worth in the eyes of God as quite simply irreversible, unstoppable – not a breakdown of the church’s teachings but an eruption within it of Catholicity itself:
This has been exactly our experience as LGBT Catholics over the last thirty or so years. It has become clearer and clearer, until it is now overwhelmingly clear, that what used to seem like a self-evident description of us was in fact mistaken. We were characterized as somehow 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 that our daughterhood and sonship of God comes upon us starting as we are, with this variant being a minor but significant stable characteristic of who we are. One, furthermore, which gives gracious shape to who we are to be.
His talk is worth reading in full because it brilliantly analogizes the strictures against gay people to the very early church’s strictures against inclusion of Gentiles. Saint Peter shocked his early followers by insisting that all such categories melted away in the new age of Jesus: “God has shown me that I should not call anyone profane or unclean.” Or in Saint Paul’s words that ring through the ages:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Alison conjures up the radicalness of all this for the Jewish sect then struggling to find its way in the world after the Resurrection:
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.
Regardless of where the collective hierarchy is, it is quite clear that Pope Francis does not see gay people as second-class citizens. If they are earnestly seeking the Lord, “who am I to judge?” It is also clear that the moral movement I described earlier today cannot but affect the people of God, as they wrestle with a a new understanding of gay people – which the church itself recognized as long ago as 1975 – and try to do God’s will. But James has moved on already. He sees gay Catholics not as a problem to be solved but as an opportunity to be seized:
We, as well as anyone, know how the Spirit of God humanizes us, not destroying culture, but defanging it from all that is violent and destructive of who humans are called to be. We know that thanks to Jesus there is no such thing as religiously pure or impure food, there are no such things as religiously mandated forms of mutilation, genital or otherwise. We know that only culture, and never God, has demanded the veiling and covering of the glory of the head and hair of women. We know that the same Spirit that taught us these things, making available to us what is genuinely true, has enabled us to discover the graced banality of our minority variant condition, allowing it to be the shape of our love that turns us into witnesses of God’s goodness as we are stretched out towards those who are genuinely suffering from terrible injustice and deprivation.
It may seem bleak for many LGBT people right now, grappling with Christianity and the institutional church’s cruelty and dehumanization. But James sees through this, the way Jesus saw through the exhausted taboos of his time. There is a serenity to him that comes with a faith lived, and not imposed.
(Photo: Pope Francis delivers his speech during the Synod of the Families, to cardinals and bishops gathering in the Synod Aula, at the Vatican, on October 6, 2014.By Andreas Solaro/AFP/Getty Images.)