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Conversation with a gay priest


On the surface, there's nothing unusual about the talk featured in this video — a Catholic priest speaking in a church to a group of Christians. But the shirt worn by the priest gives a clue that it's an extraordinary event: embroidered discreetly on its black fabric in rainbow colours is the word 'Priest'.

Since the 1970s the rainbow has been adopted by homosexuals around the globe as a symbol of gay pride and identity. This priest, British-born James Alison, is openly gay, and he's speaking here to a group of gay and lesbian Christians at Paddington Uniting Church in Sydney's eastern suburbs.

The fact that he's openly gay, and supports the legitimacy of a homosexual lifestyle, puts him at odds with Church teaching, which he argues is outmoded and no longer tenable.

The Vatican has consistently upheld its 1986 teaching that the homosexual 'inclination itself must be seen as an objective disorder', and its instruction of 2005 that the Church 'cannot admit to the seminary or to holy orders those who practise homosexuality, present deep-seated homosexual tendencies or support the so-called "gay culture"'.

If Alison was a rabble-rouser or a noisy activist, he wouldn't be taken so seriously. But far from being a rebellious troublemaker, he is softly-spoken, eloquent, reasoned and reasonable in what he says. And he is deeply spiritual and devoted to the Catholic Church and to the priesthood.

He's also a scholar of international standing, a leading exponent of the philosophy of Rene Girard, and much in demand around the world to speak about the work of this French philosopher. Girard is famous for his insights into the causes of violence, and the link between religion and violence.

Alison was born in London in 1959. He was brought up in a staunchly evangelical Protestant family, but in his late teens converted to Catholicism. He studied at Blackfriars College at the University of Oxford, and gained his bachelor's degree and doctorate in theology from the Jesuit Theology Faculty in Belo Horizonte, Brazil.

He has lived in the United States and a number of South American countries, and now resides in Sao Paulo. He belonged to the Dominican Order from 1981 till 1995, but now calls himself a 'freelance theologian', working around the world as an itinerant preacher, lecturer and retreat giver.

In 2010 he led the prestigious John Main Seminar, the annual retreat and major international gathering of the World Community for Christian Meditation. Previous seminar leaders have included spiritual luminaries such as the Dalai Lama, Raimon Panikkar, Bede Griffith, Joan Chittister, William Johnston, Jean Vanier and Rowan Williams.

With regard to homosexuality, Alison explains that over the last 50 or 60 years, science and psychology have uncovered evidence that being gay is merely a 'non-pathological, regularly occurring minority variant' in the human condition. In other words, science is telling us that rather than being a disorder, homosexual orientation is part of the normal spectrum of variation among human beings.

He argues these recent scientific revelations are part of the unfolding natural law that challenges negative attitudes and beliefs regarding homosexuality, and the basis for official Church teaching, that being gay is 'an objective disorder'.

Alison is a prolific author, and his books include Raising Abel; The Joy of Being Wrong; Faith Beyond Resentment: Fragments Catholic and Gay; On Being Liked; Undergoing God and, most recently, Broken Hearts and New Creations: Intimations of a Great Reversal. 

Peter KirkwoodPeter Kirkwood is a freelance writer and video consultant with a master's degree from the Sydney College of Divinity.

Topic tags: James Alison, gay priest, Raising Abel, The Joy of Being Wrong, Faith Beyond Resentment, On Being Liked



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Existing comments

This interview illustrates the contrast between a theology of practice that emerges through discernment, suffering and compassion, and a theology that holds to what has been said and must be believed under pain of exclusion. The Gospel of Christ is full of God's interruptions of "perfectly understandable human attitudes and practices" based on fear. "You have heard it said ..., but I say to you.." These interruptions bring us hope for a life that holds more truthfulness than what has been prejudged.

alex nelson | 06 May 2011  

The lack of response to this feature suggests that many find this subject a difficult one to address and are reluctant to do so. Perhaps the dire warnings of Leviticus 20:13 echoing down the centuries from 5BC to 21AD have a bearing on this. In essence this feature poses [to me at least, and with goodwill] a number of questions. If one assumes that ‘openly’ homosexual means ‘actively’ homosexual then how is it possible to claim priesthood in the present and largely accepted Catholic environment? How does an actively homosexual priest embrace the sacrament of reconciliation when true contrition [according to rules] is not present? How does an actively homosexual priest approach Holy Communion when [again according to rules] not being in a state of grace? How will the congregations cope if presented with homosexual priest? The reality is that in the foreseeable future this is a non-starter. There many other questions surrounding the issues of homosexuality and the Church. The leaders cannot, with any credibility, continue to assert that homosexuality is a sickness. Change, I suspect, will be a long time coming. Perhaps the power of prayer will grease the wheels.

Dermott Ryder | 06 May 2011  

A] I am intrigued at Alison's dismissive attitude to any pathology involved in etiology of sexual orientation B] Any scientific study of homosexual causality would include in Review of literature at least studies re pathology in genesis of homosexuality C]I] Dismissiveness is unwarranted eg re serious scientific research on prenatal hormones and sexuality-linked characteristics The hormonal theory of sexuality holds that, just as exposure to certain hormones plays a role in fetal sex differentiation, such exposure also influences the sexual orientation that emerges later in the adult. A pathological variable such as maternal stress can upset orientation rewiring resulting in later homosexual orientation. D] of course there are other studies looking at variant etiology of homosexuality with possibility of pathology also

FATHER JOHN GEORGE | 06 May 2011  

The following research notes certain deficiencies or lacks in the causality of homosexuality: The prenatal hormonal theory suggests that a homosexual orientation results from exposure to excessive testosterone causing an over-masculinized brain. This is contradictory to another hypothesis that homosexual preferences may be due to a feminized brain in males. However, it has also been suggested that homosexuality may be due to high prenatal levels of unbound testosterone that results from a lack of receptors at particular brain sites [wiki]

FATHER JOHN GEORGE | 06 May 2011  

A brilliant and timely contribution. I discovered this truth in spiritual direction quite a few years ago and can attest to the epiphany that Alison refers to at the end of the clip. God is not a homophobic God. Once you understand this at a deep level of your being you become empowered to ask the next question that Alison asks at the start of the interview: What is my homosexuality for? How might it be construed as a blessing? What will it allow me to do that I might not have been able to accomplish otherwise? How does it help me serve? Alison speaks to this beautifully when he asks how might I flourish through this, not simply survive. Well done James and thank you for putting words - thoughtful and prayerful words- to our experience.

MIchael Elphick | 07 May 2011  

Just a comment on a comment, if I may. Dermott Ryder says the lack of response to this suggests it is a difficult subject. For all sorts of reasons I can imagine this is indeed a difficult subject and that people might be reluctant to speak about it, but I am not so sure that the lack of response is because it is difficult etc. It may simply be that people have other interest priorities or that they don’t feel they can, or have time to, comment on every topic posted. (I’m aware of the implicit contradiction in my having the time to post on a comment on a post I haven’t the time to comment on!)

Stephen Kellett | 09 May 2011  

Dear Stephen

Perhaps addressing Peter Kirkwood’s article, James Alison’s video presentation and my [seriously asked] questions would have been more productive use of your very precious time.

Dermott Ryder | 09 May 2011  

An Australian Experimental and Academic psychologist has given permission to add a clarification to my earlier posts and homosexuality causalit: --------------------- "My additional clarification: Homosexual orientation is not on a “normal continuum of sexual orientations”, it is the result of a failure of the process during gestation that normally results in the changes in the central nervous system that underpin heterosexual orientation. Like other disturbances of normal neural development and like disturbances of normal general anatomical and physiological development it is technically pathological. The orientation of itself of course has no moral fault associated with it for the individuals so affected, rather it represents an unfortunate disposition towards immoral sexual behaviour if acted upon. Rather analogous is the condition of those who have an inbuilt disposition to vastly excessive anger/rage; it only becomes a moral issue when acted upon, but it does represent an unfortunate tendency to moral irregularities. And hence a disorder of emotional regulation."

FATHER JOHN GEORGE | 10 May 2011  

Disappointed but not altogether surprised to read John George's attempt to refute aspects of the James Alison video post. There is not an authoritative professional medical or psychiatric association in the western world that still classifies homosexuality as an illness or as an aberration in the terms suggested in John George's commentary.

Michael Elphick | 11 May 2011  

I am the mother of a gay daughter. I witness her painful struggle to remain committed within the one group in her world (the Catholic Church) which tells her that her very being and her loving is disordered. Thank you for this - I will urge her to listen to the interview and reflect on what it means for her - and her companions in the Catholic Church - to live her fullest potential.

mother | 12 May 2011  

@Dermott Ryder, the fault in your argument lies in the pretence that "openly" homosexual means "actively" homosexual. To be openly homosexual is to be physically attracted to people of the same sex, it does not necessarily mean carrying out those attractions or desires, which would be required for being considered "actively" homosexual. Perhaps it would be wise for you to look beyond script that was written thousands of years ago in a time and place that is very different to our contemporary world, where there was a lack of knowledge and understanding and that which was missing was sought beyond the natural world. I am a Catholic, and I am gay. I am no less of a Catholic for being gay. I believe in the Holy Trinity, I take solace in the existence of God and eternal life, I give thanks for the life of Jesus, and I I live my life based on the knowledge that God loves me for who I am as I am made in the image of God. Literal interpretations of the Bible can be damaging, as evidenced by the discrimination and oppression of homosexuals throughout the world.

Maria | 13 May 2011  

I have a dreadfully bad memory, and often forget my wife's special days - birthday, wedding day etc. My wife can't decide whether I am stupid or just careless in these moral lapses. I just hope she doesn't get wind of Fr John George's deeply scientific ideas about non-culpable pathological disorders which lead to a disposition to moral disorders.

I seem to remember something from religion classes about full knowledge and full consent. A genetic predisposition is not full consent. Such a trait is biologically determined.

Pat Mahony | 13 May 2011  

The teaching and language of the Catholic Church regarding homosexuality may confuse the ordinary person especially her use of the term disordered. First, the Church separates the person from the act. All of us whether homosexual or heterosexual are called to be chaste. That means no sexual relations outside of marriage. Consequently, fornication and adultery are also considered disordered. We know these acts are seriously sinful and destructive to the individual, families, and society. The Catholic Church fights for a most powerful, pure, positive ideal of human sexuality as one that unifies and remains open to its procreative aspect. A homosexual act by its very nature is sterile. The act by itself cannot produce offspring as God intended for marital sexual relations. Thus, rendering it contrary to natural law. The fact that not all heterosexual marriages produce children due to personal infertility does not change the essential nature of sexual intercourse.

Joanne | 05 December 2011  

Homosexuality is bound to be a product both of culture and of genetics. When I was young other boys tried to introduce me to homosexual practices and I could have become enculturated in this form of being. But genetically my heterosexual orientation was probably too strong. For others it would not be the case and they might easily slip onto homosexuality. Therefore there needs to be sensitivity to both the cultural and genetic factors at play in a child's development. As with most things in life there is no simple answer, so the need for tolerance and compassion for those who are different.

Richard Smith | 06 March 2014  

It is disappointing that such a perspicuous and thorough scholar and communicator of Girard's ideas prefers to ignore or deny Girard precisely on the matter of Mr Alison's own coveted desire: his sexual orientation. Although Girard's mimetic hypothesis deals specifically on homosexuality , it is not absolutely unambiguous. However, a consequence of Girard's mimetic theory is that it unambiguously rejects "ontologising" categories such as sexual orientation, which Mr Alison is here attempting, and poorly, with these pseudo-scientific claims that pander to his beloved desire, qua intrinsic identity.

Leigh | 03 July 2019