James Alison discusses “In the Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy”

In The Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frédéric Martel reveals a mind-boggling paradox: that behind the official Church teaching that gay men are “objectively disordered”, inherently disposed towards “intrinsic moral evil” and not suited to the priesthood are closeted gay priests who have risen to top positions at the Vatican. In this interview with Suzanne Ross, Father James Alison, who is an openly gay Catholic priest, expresses his hope that the secrets exposed in this book will lead to a new level of honesty and transparency within the Catholic Church, resulting in freedom for gay priests to be fully themselves as they minister to church members. Father Alison also offers advice for people scandalized by the book that will comfort them and restore their faith. 

 

Transcript of James Alison and Suzanne Ross discussing In The Closet of the Vatican: Power, Homosexuality, Hypocrisy by Frédéric Martel

PART 1: WHAT THE BOOK IS AND IS NOT ABOUT

SUZANNE ROSS: Hi ,everyone, welcome to this conversation with our friend, priest and theologian, James Alison. Hi, James!

JAMES ALISON: Hello

SUZANNE ROSS: Thanks for joining us from the home in Madrid, alright?

JAMES ALISON: It is, it is.

SUZANNE ROSS: We are so glad you can be here to help us sort through our reactions to the recently released book with the provocative title In The Closet Of The Vatican: Power, Homosexuality and Hypocrisy, the author is Frédéric Martel and he claims to document a mind blowing paradox. That behind the official church teaching that gay men are objectively disordered and inherently disposed towards intrinsic moral evil and therefore unfit for the priesthood are closeted gay men at the upper echelons of the Vatican. So it’s almost laughable, but the book is garnering a lot big range of emotional reactions. And of course, a lot of this was, not news to you, James, you are an openly gay priest and theologian, and you been working and teaching and writing about the challenges of being Catholic and gay for your almost entire career. Most notably, your book Faith Beyond Resentment really addresses this issue head on and so during Martel’s investigation into the clerical closet in Latin and South America, he came across your name as someone who been dealing with these issues, living, working studying in Mexico, Brazil, so he contacted you.

JAMES ALISON: That’s right. Yeah, I think he was tipped off by a French colleague of his with whom I have often chatted. So that’s how he got to hear of my existence.

SUZANNE ROSS: So he interviewed you and you are named source in the book and…

JAMES ALISON: Yeah, I am.

SUZANNE ROSS: So, you were then really the right person to write this guide, if you will, as a guide to processing the contents of this book, which is really quite shocking in a lot of ways. So your essay, is called, “Welcome To My World: Notes On The Reception Of A Bomb Shell”. It’s not an exaggeration really to call this book a bombshell I think. We published that essay here, at Raven, it was first published on the Australian broadcasting company site, but we are happy to host it here. And to have you here to talk with us today, and sort of walk through, sort of this way of making sense of what we learning about the extent of the of what you might call, the cover up, the mendacity, the double lives…

JAMES ALISON: Just how gay the senior clergy of the church is.

SUZANNE ROSS: Exactly, just how gay they are. So I am going to be also, James, we are broadcasting this on our Raven Facebook page, and I am trying to find it so I can see the comments. So, folks, please come join the conversation by posting your comments on Facebook and I will be monitoring that as our conversation goes along. We’ll see if we can bring some folks in to the conversation. So James, let’s start by clarifying, what the book is, and is not about, because it was actually I think it’s sort of unfortunate coincidence that it was released the day that Vatican conference on the protection of minors began.

JAMES ALISON: Right. I think it’s worth saying that was much more of a coincidence and much less of a deliberate plan, than some people have assumed. It was really, as you probably know, because the Vatican summit was called very late in the day, with a short notice like five months notice which by Vatican terms is very short notice for a meeting. And, of course, Frédéric has this book available since July or August of last year in French. And for all the publishers in all these eight different languages to come together with a date for their joint publication for spring meant they had to come together with a date. And that it was same day, just the beginning of this momentous, I think an unfortunate coincidence, which is much more of a coincidence than a deliberate attempt to torpedo something.

SUZANNE ROSS: Because the book is not directly about the clergy abuse scandal in the church?

JAMES ALISON: No it’s not. I think that was the first concern of a number of people who heard about it. Oh my God, here is this book, which is going to give weapons into the hands of those people who say, ah well, all of this clergy abuse is because of the gay people. And by this stage, thank heavens, the leaders In the Vatican have done their homework, do know that there is no plausible link between these two, all the experts tell them there is nothing inherent in homo sexuality that makes someone with that orientation to be any more or any less Inclined to pedophilia than heterosexuality. In other words, it is not an indicator for pedophilia. I think what the book does do, which is something slightly different from that, is that it shows a world of mendacity which does come some what to at least correlating with the world of cover up, we have all seen with relation to as I think every body knows ever since Watergate. The cover up is worst than the crime. And I think that everyone is at least, as disgusted, if not more disgusted, by the way in which church authorities have handled the abuse; they’re more angry about that, in any case than the abuse itself. Because very often the way church authorities handle it have actually multiplied the number of people abused by sending on priest to different places and trying to pretend that nothing happened.

The question of why, why this culture of cover up and… this book does at least suggest, it’s a plausible hypothesis with one of the reasons, behind the church’s cover-up, the tendency to cover up, is the because there is so much fear about admitting homosexuality, which makes people very blackmailable. So that’s perhaps one of the things that does come up, if you like, there is a link, but it is not the link most people think. 

SUZANNE ROSS: Right, can you say a little more about that link, about the fear of being blackmailed, and being outed, if you will, if you exposed clerical abuse?

JAMES ALISON: Yes. Well, I think people’s first reaction is… an awful lot of people until recently didn’t to know there was a difference between pedophilia and homosexuality and they were used to a don’t ask, don’t tell world with relation to homosexuality ever since they were in the seminary. And the result is partly out of mercy, in other words, don’t throw stones in a glass house, and also partly out of fear of blackmail. We’ve all got skeletons in the closet here even if they’re only very minor issues. So it’s much, much better to try and keep everything quiet. I think both those both mercy and fear of blackmail. We don’t want to list this; this is dirty laundry no one wants washed.

It’s only of course… it’s taken a long time for people to make a distinction between pedophilia and homosexuality. And when once they make that distinction, of course, it’s fairly obviously to people in civil world, but in a world, in which people can’t be honest about homosexuality, too liable, fear of themselves being pointed to if they start talking openly about this area.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yeah, but one of things that really struck me, I mean there were lot of very startling things in the book, but one thing that really struck me was the need for this denial, this double life, that the priests felt they had to live. Many priests seems to be growing in comfort through their careers with their homosexuality beginning to realize “Wait, this isn’t some sort of weird disorder, it’s just who I am,” but yet, they have to keep it secret, they had to keep lying about who they were and that seems to be the source of most of the problems.

JAMES ALISON: I think that’s right, I think as people, become more honest. This is one of weird things. Different people do find the possibility become quite healthy within their lives in the church, they then find that their healthiness is limited by the fact, that if they say so it’s against the teaching of the church. So, if they say so, they are going to be pointed out and got rid of or strongly marginalized. So you find, it’s a very sad situation where those who know the church teaching is wrong, aren’t able to say so, because they will be immediately pointed as being bad priests, who are merely speaking in favor of their own vices. Whereas bad people, and some are very bad people, who know perfectly well what they are, but have built a career about attacking those who engage in what I believe is called reaction formation. They are ones who get to sing the song, they are ones who can wave the flag and be the paladins of virtue. And that’s a complete sick situation. It is a sick situation which everyone knows about, in which the honest can’t be honest and the liars can’t stop lying.

SUZANNE ROSS: One of the odd things that seems to come out in the book is what is one of the rules that Martel comes up with all these rules? It says the most virulent anti-gay clerics are the one who are self-loathing, most closeted and, I don’t know, it just seems like this odd pattern.

JAMES ALISON: It’s the general rule. It’s the rule that I certainly experienced in my formation and since then, whenever I’ve talked to priest, they are all report the same thing. Every religious community or every seminary has its witch hunter. And the witch hunter is perfectly convinced he the witch hunter is not gay and everyone else knows perfectly well profoundly in denial, completely out of touch himself. But he really, really needs to clean the Aegean stables and its terribly, terribly difficult for any superior to say to him, you know, calm down dear, you really don’t need to do this. I once had an interesting conversation with… of the British navy before the abandonment of the don’t ask don’t tell rule. So before gay people are allowed to serve openly. It was very interesting because he described very similar dynamic on ship board. Which is that everyone knew what the rules were, you weren’t allowed to be gay. Most people knew there were gays on board, particularly in the navy, as you can imagine, but there would always be one officer or petty officer or something who have it in for the gay kids.

And everyone, all of his co-officers knew perfectly well, why this was but no one could correct him because he has the law on his side.


PART 2: FOLLOWING THE TRAIL OF GOSSIP

SUZANNE ROSS: So James, I want to turn to the issue of who this author is and just how much we can trust what he is telling us?

JAMES ALISON: Right. Well, as you can imagine, I was a bit nervous about that when I got email from him asking to interview me, so I rang friends in France and they told me a bit about him. And then he himself offered to send me a copy of the book which he had written two or three years ago, which is called Global Gay. It was his study how the brand gay had gone global. In other words, how the same word which is obviously derived from Anglo Saxon culture had come to refer to an area of downtown Tokyo, an area of downtown Taipei, an area of downtown Sidney, well not an area of downtown Tehran, but at least a way of living among certain people in downtown Tehran. So he wanted to explore all that in his book. So I read the book, which is an easy read. And amongst the cities he explored where a couple or several in fact which I know quite well, including the gay life in those cities, and what he has to say, resonated really quite strongly with my own impressions of it. I appreciated also his anthropological nuances dealing with these different places. 

So I thought to myself, okay, there is a sensitivity here to cultural difference, and then I am more inclined to believed him when he described cities that I have never been to when he describes one that I know. Right, I am with him on this. So, I supposed, it could be entirely right or wrong or he could be that he is particularly good in describing cities that I have been to and being particularly bad in ones I haven’t. But it seems unlikely in general, if someone is good about things you know, they are probably reliable about things you don’t know.

SUZANNE ROSS: Very good, for a nice straight grandma like myself reading about this gay culture that I have no real access to, was really quite, I mean, I was happy to have your affirmation that this does happen, this is going on, even to the extent of the freedom that gay clergy feel to have loving relationships with each other, with other men, and also to the extent which they pay for sex. I mean there was this whole wide range of sexual experiences that very closeted gay priests were having around the globe.

JAMES ALISON: Yep, it’s a striking ethnography. It’s a striking ethnography, I think it’s worth remembering his training is in sociology, so that’s how he looks at things. I think this is actually a good sociological take. He looks and sees patterns and how patterns structure in different places and how they repeat themselves in different places. So yes, he found basically the same set up exists in the Vatican and exists in dioceses in different parts of the world. And as far as I have access to these things, he described what I know to be true. So, my first reaction on reading the book, was amazement, but not that it was untrue, it was so much bigger than I had thought. What blew me away was the dimension of the thing, not the thing.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yeah, it is, yeah. No, it is stunning.

JAMES ALISON: That was what to me seems absolutely amazing is the cumulative effect of what is described and how constant it is.

SUZANNE ROSS: One of the difficulties he faced in doing this kind of research is that, it’s secret stuff. People don’t want to talk about it, they don’t want to be on the record. You are one of the few people who are on the record with your observations. But so he… one of the things I was uncomfortable about with the book is that it can feel gossipy, and there is a lot of suggestive, open ended questions, innuendo, insinuations, and so on. Can you address that aspect of the book?

JAMES ALISON: Yeah. Well, I think the first thing I have to say about that is if you poke around in a honeycomb, you will get covered with a sweet, golden liquid. If you poke around in clerical closet, you will get covered in gossip. It is an extremely, extremely, gossipy environment. And in that sense, this is something interesting, which he points out and which other people older than me, I am coming up to 60’s, people in their 70’s and older, who remember better than I what gay life was like before liberation, before Stonewall. Was that it was a series of very gossipy, small places in which everyone was gossiping out at everyone else, everyone had female nicknames, bitchy codes were used about everything. And, what Martel discovers, and he is slightly younger than me, therefore, most of his life in much more open environment. Is it really the pre-Stonewall world is alive and well, if you like, a Jurassic Park preserved in amber of what closeted gay life used to be in 1940’s and 1950’s.

It is a gerontocracy run by much, much elder people, who themselves grow up at times when these things are not able to be talked about, or able to be talk about only in very careful code because there are civil consequences, quite drastic civil consequences. The laws where changed starting in the 1960’s onwards, in many cases, but of course, in that world produces a massive cognitive dissonance with the younger people, you know, 30 year-olds, who are going to work, fresh out of seminary, some from South America, and come to work in Rome. They are in a completely different universe as regards what they think is normal and what can be talked about. So, to find them, as it were having to play by closets rules from the 1940’s and 1950’s already creates an amazing cognitive dissonance. So yeah, that is part of what he discovered. 

So, it’s meant to be gossipy, very febrile world. So, he had to be very careful. He is well known in the profession, and this is something which I take pleasure in, as I have discovered in hearing from other people that he is well known in the journalistic profession as extremely scrupulous about sources and evidence in whatever field he is dealing. And so he was not just going to take the word of about that gossipy queen, as it were, which is something it sounds like. If someone says that you will find Cardinal X does this, his boyfriend is Y, he would have found four or five different witnesses to it but from quite different perspectives and made quite sure none of them had a personal axe to grind about, the person or simply defaming them for some political purpose. And then would try to talk either to the secretary, or the boyfriend in question, or to the cardinal in question as far as it was possible to have an open conversation about such things. So, that’s, a very slow meticulous process.

Now I share your sense that sometimes, you read the book, it is written in a florid gay gossipy style, but that’s in having fun as a French gay writer. Personally, it’s not my schtick. I don’t like that. I think a lot of Anglo-Saxon people fine that style a little bit, a little bit off putting. Having said that, he is quite careful. If he can say publicly something about “x” without legal consequences, he will. And he is prepared to say it if he knows he will have legal backing, if he were tried for it. If a case were made to process him for it. Remember, it’s not, at least in European law, and I imagine the same thing is true in the United States, to say that someone is gay, it’s not a (what’s the word) it’s not defamatory thing. You may be right or you may be wrong. You may be right to say somebody has green irises or is left handed. You may be wrong, but to say that it’s not a matter of defamation you can be corrected. But obviously, while that’s true in civil society, it’s not true in the church. For the church effectively to say something true about someone that they themselves are pretending is not true is to expose them as being dishonest. And that’s part of the problem that they’ve got themselves into with this strange double world, not aligning people honestly, which is people from the outside, can look in and see something which is quite clear, and people from inside know that it’s true, but can’t say it.

His principle is if he can’t say it, in such a way that it will stand up in court, he will. That’s what journalists do. If he got the evidence, could defend it in court, but knows the witnesses aren’t yet ready themselves to give witness, then he won’t say it, he’ll insinuate it. So, when he insinuates, it’s not because he doesn’t know, it’s because he doesn’t know it to a standard of legal, what’s the word, legal certainty of the sort that his publishers would say we are not prepared to say this because we think we might lose in court. So, I mean, he’s given me, I can’t mention names obviously, he mentioned it to me a couple of names of people that he knows about with evidence from different people and they are not yet prepared to go on the record. The time may come when they are prepared to go on the record in which case that will have been a very well-founded insinuation.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yes, it’s difficult…he is following a trail of gossip into a place of secrecy where people are keeping secrets and are afraid of the consequences of revealing them. So…

JAMES ALISON: Well, the funny thing is they are keeping secrets and at the same time not keeping secrets. That’s the funny thing. At the same time, and this is one of the amazing things which he brings out, I am sure you have noticed, which is at the same time these same people for whom it’s all secret are remarkable brazen about it within what they assumed to be their sphere of impunity. So, that’s one of the things, it is amazing. You read it and think how do these people think they can get away with it? It reminds me of a story, which I think I probably told you of, it was reported by one of Cardinal Spellman’s lovers, who was a ballet dancer in New York, talking about a famous party, that Spellman was at, which I think J. Edgar Hoover was at, and Gore Vidal was at. Maybe it was with Gore Vidal who recounted the story. The dancer, who had been Spellman’s lover, asked Cardinal Spellman how do you get away with it? Spellman said to him precisely because no one will believe it.

I think, that’s it, there’s an amazing dissonance of belief. I have bumped into this. I have a very high ranking church man, who on reading bits from this book, the higher ranking churchman with whom he had lived but for… couldn’t believe it. But then saw the records were from the United States intelligent services to do with South America. In other words, this was not possible, this was made up. This was something the US intelligence were aware. Someone was being blackmailed by the security services of a South American nation. Specifically (inaudible). Which shows you can live alongside somebody and have no idea? That’s the way, this series of closets work.


PART 3: HOW DID THE CATHOLIC CHURCH GET ITSELF IN THIS MESS?

SUZANNE ROSS: So, James, I was just going to ask you to talk about how the church got in the situation because it seems that from Vatican II in the 60’s, there was this movement of opening up, of trying to more liberal and modern, to keep pace with what we were learning about what it means to be human, and all sorts of issues around sexuality, whether it was reproductive things, and whatever. And then something like the church just sort of closed down. The rest of the world seemed to be learning more and more about the normalcy, the sheer unremarkability of gayness and the church stopped learning. What happened?

JAMES ALISON: Yes, that’s one of the questions historians will start to ask now they are beginning to see the evidence of what has happened. It looks awfully like a panic attack. It looks as though people formed at very end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century wanting to learn how to love, becoming aware of love affairs with people of their own sex, and needing this to be something that was chaste, and beautiful, and good, and not something that was the seamy side of the underworld. It was just terrifying to them. And so I think that the worries of the church, strong desire to sublimate what they couldn’t name as being gay, that wasn’t how they talked about it at the time into what we could now call platonic love or special love, a variety of terms. And Martel follows quite clearly the way this was done with the work of the French author Jacques Maritain. I know that was very interesting for me that was entirely new. I’d seen more of how this worked in the English-speaking world. For me, that which affected both the French and the Italian speaking world, that was quite a new set of melodies or set variations around the same melody, if you like. Think of how the great French authors of the time, Gidé and company, were dealing with this in the way some of our war post, our gay war post, many of whom, alas, were killed in the First World War were also beginning to explore some of these kind of things. So, there was a lot going on in the early 20th century.

SUZANNE ROSS: But there is this whole feeling that the only way to be a good homosexual was to be chaste homosexual.

JAMES ALISON: Of course, it was the only one, it was certainly mean, remember everything else was a mortal sin and that was how it was considered at the time. So, the horror, as the realization that actually this is something normal, the suggestion therefore that the needed to accept themselves as something, I mean that sounded like you must accept an abomination onto yourself. And you could imagine I think that many people would have said, no, no, I sacrificed myself entirely to you, God, in order for me not to be this. I will take onboard whatever persona you give me not to be this.

I think that, if you like, has been the great battle since then with what members of a certain generation were able to do, which has becoming increasingly impossible to following generations to go through. As we have learnt to some extent to bridge, to overcome the fear of being the abomination we were brought up thinking all this was and to start to allow grace to take us out of the place of shame. But, you know, the people who ran the show, I think, they realized with the changes that were coming with Vatican II, it would include changes in this matter as well. I think there was a massive panic around this. And therefore, it’s not surprising those who knew how to react to panic got to be the, you know, the hardliners who ran the show thereafter. And the result is… This is what I think the book shows. The people around John Paul II, in particular, they are a fine bunch when you look at the evidence of who they were and what their lives were like. Ratzinger comes out much less badly than the others. In fact, he gets a much more sympathetic treatment than I think some people would like in Martel’s book. At least one of the things that was perfectly clear about him, he was honest and not bribable in the way, that others who are simply going along playing a double game. They were singing from John Paul’s hymn sheet. We sign off on all of your positions, now, let’s go, it’s fine. And some of these guys were really terrible. And I think that’s the world that has proved to be unsustainable. And I think it’s from within that world, but you are getting all this people speaking out, speaking to Martel.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yes, there seems to be a sense of relief, coming towards him from people finding out the place to talk about it, a way to come out in the open about what they want to talk about, but are trapped… career consequences, all kinds of things if you say anything about your sexuality.

JAMES ALISON: Well, remember from an older generation not only career consequences but presumption of hell. I think that’s one of the things, that’s worth remembering is that how far, many young gay kids have to go from a presumption of hell to being able to start standing up and being honest. So you are dealing with that. I think the everyone has noticed this that the fear of hell has ceased to be one of the main flavors of western Christianity. It doesn’t occupy the place in everyone’s imagination as it used to occupy. And lots of people regret this, what happened to hell, what happen to sin and so on and so forth.

I think one of the reasons is that so many people had actually to deal with the real truth about hell concerning such matters as these, and once you dealt with that, you are not going to be frightened with a mere church leaders barking at you. You know in yourself, that it’s not wrong, that means you are therefore playing a game for them, it’s not that you are in real… the real belief that they might send you to hell.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yeah. I certainly know people who have gone through that struggle themselves, and been suicidal and we haven’t all quite moved past that fear.

JAMES ALISON: Absolutely not.

SUZANNE ROSS: There is something wrong. Especially very religious people, people who are want to be good Christian are especially tormented.

JAMES ALISON: Well, think that many of these high ranking churchmen are just such people. Some of them are obviously some of the most cynical and completely worldly players, But others are people are striving for holiness from a very frightening place.

SUZANNE ROSS: That’s certainly comes out in the book. Some of them you want to strangle them that you read about, and others feel like, oh my God, you just feel sorry.

JAMES ALISON: Yes, it’s a great deal of misery there. And one hopes by the lid coming off little by little with this whole thick smoke of lies are able to dissipate a bit.


PART 4: AN UNSCANDALIZED REACTION

SUZANNE ROSS: So, James as it does come out into the open, the response to the book, it’s easy to become scandalized by what you read in there. And, of course, scandal and mimetic theory go very well together. And in fact Betsy Hansbrough is asking if when we use the word, scandal about this are we talking about scandal in the Girardian sense, about how we are reacting to this book?

JAMES ALISON: To be honest because I wasn’t scandalized by it, I am not sure. But then, I have had a lot of time, as it were, to see that I am the same as them. I am not… It sounds a bizarre thing to say but I was shown a lot of myself in the book. Obviously not because I appear that much, I don’t, because the different times remind me of I knew where I was that time, so I could imagine things.

I wonder what is it that people are being scandalized by. You have this weird sensation that actually if you’d asked people before the existence of this books and before they ever heard of the existence of this book, do you think the Vatican is full of gossipy old queens. People would have said yeah, of course, the Vatican is full of gossiping old queens, we all know that.

It’s one of the kinds of things that everybody knew until the moment that they are actually confronted with the evidence, it really is like that. When suddenly everybody is shocked and can’t really believe it. I think the reality check of what this means for understanding how we live together as church, that is an area of potential scandal. That people will allow themselves either to be so appalled that they just say, we can’t believe that people say, we just go off somewhere else. Or else be so fascinated, that they want every salacious detail. Neither seems to me to be very helpful. And for me, at least, the avoiding the scandal is to recognize what we have got is one of the fruits of Jesus dwelling in the place of shame. But because he dwells in the place of shame, and because the death that is associated with that can’t hold him, so the light and the mercy begins to show through from the place of shame.

And what’s seemed to have a sacred mystique, turns out not to have a sacred mystique. Turns out be full of frightened people, people rather like us. Some of them more exotic and bizarre than people like us, but an awful lot very like us. And this seemed to be part of how forgiveness appears by grace showing through the place of shame. That’s how I read it.

For me, the interesting question is, what does God’s forgiving us look like. One of the first things God’s forgiving us looks like is us showing us what we need to be forgiven rather than allowing us to keep our entirely fake elastic plaster over the wound. Forgiven church people are people who are able to preach a gospel of mercy. Unforgiven church people, the Lord alone knows what they are preaching, but it sure isn’t the gospel of mercy[SR(1] . Does that make sense? I very much appreciate the Betsy’s question.

Yeah, it will be interesting to know… in a sense because I have been at this so long, I am not scandalized by it. Maybe I am wrong not to be, maybe I ought to be much more scandalized. I know some people who are profoundly angry. Actually, Andrew Sullivan gave a rather beautiful example of real anger in his response. I thought his review was a very good review of Martel. He is a professional journalist, so he knows, what, what professional journalism looks like. And, but he is really angry at the duplicity of these hard-faced guys who been talking down at the rest of us all this time. You know, I think, yeah, I guess I ought to be more angry about that, but I can’t waste the energy, to be quite frank.

SUZANNE ROSS: Well, Jesus warns against the skandalon as a stumbling block to following him.

JAMES ALISON: Well Jesus said, the key phrase, as I understand, is Jesus saying blessed are those who are not scandalized by me. The people who are going to be scandalized by him were not sinners; the people who are scandalized by him were the righteous. What they thought righteousness should be like. So, in a sense, any of us who play at teachers of righteousness are always going to be scandalous and Jesus will continuously break through and be the one who allows us to follow him without being scandalized, because he loves us as we are. He is not into us being crazy examples of some sort of goodness we need to pretend to in other not to give the game away or something. That’s requires real the gift of faith in the reincarnation rarely close up…

SUZANNE ROSS: Doesn’t it though. And you give I think some really concrete ways that we can enter into a non-scandalized way of reacting in your in essay. Because honestly, it’s really is hard not to stand in judgment and say you betrayed our trust, you’ve lied. And so, maybe we can, you jokingly say, that one of the unhelpful reactions, is just to say why don’t we just not enforce celibacy. No matter what your orientation is just everybody recommit to celibacy and we will be fine. And you say let me gay-explain why that’s not going to work. And I find your gay-explanation very helpful. So, maybe you could go into it a little bit.

JAMES ALISON: Yeah, it’s a curious point because so many people, I think, wanting to genuinely be gay-friendly say I got no problem with gay priests, just behave the same. But what that presumes is everybody is starting from the same place. And, if you are a young gay kid coming into seminary, you are not starting from the same place as a young straight kid coming into seminary. And you are not coming into the same place as a young straight kid coming to seminary or coming to a place for which a pre-condition for your acceptance is agreement not to speak about who you are in the first person as a normal part of your life. And, if you like, this is one of the way of things, if you prohibit honesty and you prohibit, some, very, very few people will be able to live a life in which they agree to be dishonest, and they have no sex. But most people will break one of those two rules and easily the least consequential one to break is the one about sex. If you break the one about honesty, that has real consequences for your life. It means that you are therefore known as a person, you are assumed to be therefore in some kind of conflict with church teaching and you are effectively in church issues, so say good bye to promotion or jobs, or whatever it is you want. Or you will be looked at askance by your colleagues, because you cannot be blackmailed and they can, which means, you can’t be trusted. 

You are not playing the game, so you’ve broken omertà. That’s the sad reality, the sad reality is celibacy means quite two different things if you are straight and if you are gay. If you are gay, it’s basically a hoop to be jumped over on the grounds that whether you are obeying or disobeying that no one, under no circumstances no one will know. It’s invisible, it has no consequences, but the key thing is not to be honest. Whereas if you are straight, hey, you have every opportunity to be honest starting from the word go. In other words, honesty is simply normal, you are assumed with other people are like that. But on the contrary, any incontinence is likely to have very grave consequences particularly for the economically more vulnerable, the women, and with the potential of child bearing, at least during certain time of her life.

So, the relationship, between sex and honesty is entirely different between the two. And I think this is one of the things that thoroughly decent, non-homophobic straight people simply don’t see is how honesty is easy for them. The celibacy may be extremely difficult for them. But, the honesty at least as regards who they like and why they like them is not something they are forbidden to talk about. No one will think it odd if in a homily, Father Joe mentioned when he was young and dating glorious, beautiful Isabel, whatever, everyone will like that sort of story to think how normal Father is. But no kind of, no kind of censorship on that sort of honesty, whereas the reverse you could imagine is simply a death sentence. So, until this issue of honesty is dealt with, you could insist on celibacy and continence as much as you like and no one will notice and people will still play the same old don’t ask don’t tell blackmail game[SR(2] .

PART 5: CHRISTIANITY DEPENDS ON WITNESSES

SUZANNE ROSS: Well I think at the risk of embarrassing you, James, when Martel speaks about you, he says you are, how does he put it, one of the most brave people that he met in the course of doing this book. I think it is because of your honesty about who you are and how you have insisted on being honest about who you are, and you have had to deal with the consequences of that.

JAMES ALISON: Yeah, when reading this book, one of the things, wow how much easier it is to deal with the consequences of that, than to deal with the consequences of not. Whoa! My sense of relief, a) that all these is coming out, and b) what extraordinary gift it was that I shouldn’t been able to go through with either the game. I mean, I have no, like I say, am very, very grateful for certain elements of my evangelical Protestant background where honesty is very important. One must attempt to bring together truthfulness, transparency even if it makes one a thoroughly annoying person.

SUZANNE ROSS: Or makes you very lovable.

JAMES ALISON: That’s very kind of you.

SUZANNE ROSS: You know and a very powerful voice, because out of your own witness to the joy that comes from truth telling, you are able to speak authentically to us and so that’s really important.

JAMES ALISON: Well, what’s really important for me in all of this is that Christianity depends on witnesses. And what’s really sad and sick about all this is we can’t have all these splendid people, many of who could be witnesses to Jesus and yet they are trapped into being half witnesses. They can’t speak in the first person. This is a terrible, terrible loss. At a time when what we need is witnesses. Pope Francis makes it quite clear Christianity is a religion which depends on witnesses. But for that you need to have people who are able to speak in the first person as sinners, but where people can see that although they are sinners they are not trying to pull a fast one on them. If you don’t have that, if you have professionals of the closet, they are not ministering to anything except the power of the closet to dampen their witness. So, I think this is not a question of gay or not gay, this is a question of how do we manage to make and keep alive Christianity as viable in the 21st century where the expectations of transparency almost in itself are so much greater…

SUZANNE ROSS: Well, yes we have a comment from Wesley Dunbar saying, thank you for lifting up honesty and truthfulness as the highest of values. Betsy is pointing to the fact that they Methodist church is going through difficult moment on this issue right now, you know, you kind of wish they could learn from the mistakes of their brethren, the Catholic Church.

James, can I ask you, as we are wrapping up, coming to the end of our hour, do you see signs that things are changing under Pope Francis or… I got a sense of hopefulness in the book about the way Francis is marginalizing the really strident homophobic clerics, so it felt positive to me in some ways. How are you seeing it?

JAMES ALISON: Yeah, I agree with that, I think people have at last worked out that when someone is really strict, and particularly when they are obsessively strict on this issue, they have a problem. I think whereas, at least ten years ago, people were not sure about that. I think the people now are pretty clear about that. It’s pretty clear definitely to everyone at the Vatican, that’s how that works. So, I think Francis’ continued calling attention to rigidity and suggesting where there is rigidity there is a double life. Because someone who has faith is not going to be rigid. Because you know, faith means you are prepared to allow yourself to be changed by the one who is leading you on. Whereas rigidity means you are holding into an ideology so to hold firm who you are. These two are not really compatible. So[SR(3] , yes, I am encouraged by that, and I am also encouraged, to be frank, encouraged by the fact that all these people spoke to Martel. And let’s face it, this book, some people will think, oh, this wicked journalist went into the Vatican and pried open all these closets of the church. Whereas in fact what happened was, he walked in more or less indicated what he wanted to do and found door after door flung open and people wanting to tell him, sharing all. He shown me some of the WhatsApp messages he received from high-ups and officials. And I get absolutely astounded by their sheer imprudence. I mean it’s utterly extraordinary. The fact is there are awful lot of people who were so relieved to go talk about this, to say yes, this is how it is, and of course, the moment someone is able to put together enough pieces of the jigsaw puzzle, so we can see the overall picture for everyone to start to say, okay, we’ve been caught, now we don’t need  to play this game any longer.

So yes, I am actually very hopeful about this, I think this book, if people will actually get over their allergies when they read it and get over perhaps certain annoyances about a certain kind of faggy style, it’s rather fun for gay people, and maybe rather infuriating for others. If people can get over that and see that a very great deal of first-rate journalistic investigation into a whole lot of different countries in the world. This is a pretty good picture of much more about church life than we have been used to thinking. Then I think, we are able more rationally to deal with the people who we have in front of us. We are not holding them in fake deference, attaching fake mystique to them. We are pretty much aware of who they are. This I think is the motive of great helpfulness. 

SUZANNE ROSS: I do see it, too. It is sort of a watershed moment, I think, and that’s, sort of marking, a sea change, at least, that’s my hope.

JAMES ALISON: It’s so serious… the child abuse cover-up, the mistreatment of nuns, the sexual abuse of nuns, the recent coming out of Vatican instructions for dealing with children of priest. It’s as though actually the time has come for all of this to be put out there so that everyone knows, that yeah, this is the baby and the bathwater. Now, let’s work out which is which.

SUZANNE ROSS: And yeah, let’s deal with it together.

JAMES ALISON: And let’s get together and slowly, and carefully, and not some, you know, completely Manichean…

SUZANNE ROSS: Reactionary thing.

JAMES ALISON: The scapegoat way in, we can either be Hercules and clean Augean stables, in which case we are part of the pagan divinity, or we can be Jesus and allowing mercy to break through the place of shame. This seems to me the choice is ours.

SUZANNE ROSS: Go about the work of building the kingdom. 

James, thank you for your wisdom and your counsel and thank you to people who joined in, and listened, and watched, and made some wonderful comments.

JAMES ALISON: Thank you for having me.

SUZANNE ROSS: I’ll look forward to the next time.

JAMES ALISON: Indeed, good, good.

SUZANNE ROSS: Thanks, James.

JAMES ALISON: Okay. Ciao ciao.

SUZANNE ROSS: Bye, bye.