James Alison understands well, and clearly articulates, the place of desolation in which so many gay Catholics find themselves. In his book, “Faith Beyond Resentment”, the title of his second chapter, “theology amidst the stones and dust”, presents a vivid image of this dry and desolate place. Reinforcing this image, the first section is headed “a heart-close-to-cracking”. Many of my readers will find that this phrase vividly describes emotional spaces they may have occupied in the past, or may occupy still, in negotiating a place of welcome in the Christian community. It most certainly describes one strand of the emotional responses I read in the commentary following Fr James Martin’s recent article “What is a gay Catholic to do?”.
Fr Martin presented the problem of the gay Catholic in objective terms, listing five things that he cannot do if he is to be viewed by the Church as “in good standing”. Alison presents the problem in far more personal and subjective terms. (Unlike Fr Martin, he is speaking here from direct personal experience). Writing about our experience of the Church, he does not pull his punches:
“The experience of many gay people is that the Church in some way or other, kills us. Typically in official discourse we are a “they”, dangerous people whose most notable characteristic is not a shared humanity, but a tendency to commit acts considered to be gravely objectively disordered. Typically our inclusion within the structure of church life comes at a very high price: that of agreeing not to speak honestly………. The message is : you’re fine just so long as you don’t rock the boat through talking too frankly, which is the same as saying “you’re protected while you play the game our way, but the moment that something “comes to light”, you’re out. …….….And please notice that the scandal in question is not a scandal for a great part of the heterosexual population, who tend to be indifferent to all this, when not mildly amused by what they always suspected. It is a scandal for the group which fears the consequences for itself of the revelation of truths about its group composition.
In this the non-explicit message of the ecclesiastical mechanism is exactly the reverse of the explicit message of the Church. The explicit message is: God loves you just as you are, and it is from where you are that you are invited to prepare with us the banquet of the kingdom. The latent message is,: God loves you as long as you hide what you are and deny yourself the search for the integrity and transparency of life and of virtues which it is your task to teach to others.” (p45)
However, it is not Alison’s practice to wallow in self-pity, nor to encourage us to do so. Typically, the response of too many gay Catholics is to slip into one of two extreme responses: fanatical loyalty, accepting without question the official teaching of the Church, or fanatical rejection. Alison leads us instead, in quite another direction, to a place of hope and delight: he refers frequently to “much-loved queers”, for that is what he believes we are, and wants us too to realize this.
Before he can make clear his main point, he makes a startling claim:
“Jesus taught that there is no analogue on earth for divine paternity, and that divine paternity can only be learnt by means of learning fraternity with Jesus.”
The implications are far-reaching. First, and most obviously, that our relationship with Jesus must be a fraternal, that is a brotherly, one, because he is “exactly at the same level as us, that is, he is a human being.” More surprisingly, it leads to a subversion, a destruction of out entire way of viewing the social order and its response to us queers.
“I suspect that I’m not the only gay man to have imagined and received the whole force of the social, cultural and ecclesiastical hatred of gay people as if it were a paternal force. A paternal force that demanded that I either buckle under or die, or both at the same time.”
But if this idea of a patriarchal model (which the church routinely adopts) is invalid, then we must insist on finding an alternative model, a fraternal model, for our relationship to the church. We have the right and the duty to re-imagine that relationship along lines which reflect the teaching and voice of Christ. This re-imagining, in turn, presents us with the opportunity to engage in mature discussion with the Church on several important texts, from Scripture and from the documents of the Church, on equal terms with everybody else.
“We have to rework Catholic moral theology in such a way as to make it capable of unbinding the consciences of people who fear, at a very deep level, receiving the conscience of a child of God. We have to offer, in a non-threatening way, the possibility of being introduced into the dynamic movement which I have tried to sketch out, of becoming detached from idols so as to receive divine sonship. We have to learn how to present in a much clearer way something which I have only begun to sketch out: the loving kindness and audacity of God who invites us just as we are to create fraternity by means of the crucified and risen brother who opens up our minds to imagine the new Jerusalem in the midst of the ruins of all our idolatries, all our acts of cowardice. No small task for the third millennium.”
Let me now return to the imagery of the “hearts close to cracking”, with which Alison begins his exposition. He uses the phrase in a very specific context, with a very specific purpose. The context is that of three distinct Bible passages: of Elijah, of the destruction of the Jewish temple, and of Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus. The point of these, each of which represents a point of extremity, of desolation for the people affected, is that from this point of extremity, of near destruction of the spirit, comes a new birth, with profound experience of the love and consolation of the Lord.
In Ignatian spirituality, two key concepts are those of the experience of “consolation”, in which we are aware of finding God, and its apparent opposite, “desolation”, in which we do not experience God. These two, however, are not as distinct as might seem. Handled correctly, desolation can be turned around, and can lead to consolation. (In Ignatius’ thinking, we can and must “find God in all things” – and “all things” includes those times of hearts close to cracking).
It is my contention, as I think it is James Alison’s, that in its attempt to marginalise us, the institutional church unintentionally does something quite different, something that can be turned into a great gift. To see what I mean, I want to elaborate on this idea of “margins” with a lesson in mathematics.
It is a fundamental truth in high school geometry that parallel lines never meet – indeed, that is one definition of parallel lines. Yet twentieth century mathematicians produced a profound demonstration that the proposition is entirely false, that parallel lines frequently meet. The idea that they do not, applies only to one very special set of circumstances: when they lie on the same flat plane. (Consider the case of a sphere, as represented by the earth. Lines of longitude are parallel, and all meet at the two poles). This realisation led to an entirely new field of mathematics, non-Euclidean geometry, with some very productive outcomes for modern mathematics, and for modern science.
Now apply the same idea to the concept of “margins”. They do not exist, except on a flat surface. On the surface of the globe, there are no margins. My experience of being shoved to the so-called “margins” of the church has led me instead to a closer, more direct and more personal relationship with God, partially bypassing the Church as an imtermediary - and to the recognition that there are no margins, there is no centre. Thinking of the globe again, there are precisely two points that are distinct, that have all lines of longitude leading to them. In that sense, they could be regarded as a kind of “centre”. These two points are the two poles.
So, concluding with James Alison once again. Our “hearts close to cracking” offer the opportunity to experience, as much – loved queers, a more intense, more personal experience of the Lord, and to develop a more adult, fraternal relationship with the church. There are no “margins”, as there is no “centre”, except as created and presented to us by the ecclesiastical mechanism. Move beyond the trap of seeing things in two dimensions, and we have no need to swallow their hoax.