James Alison Discusses the Catholic Church and Clergy Abuse – Full Video

A few months ago Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., offered his resignation to Pope Frances amid a cloud of accusations that he mishandled reports of clerical sexual abuse while he served as bishop in Pittsburgh. On Friday, October 12, Pope Frances accepted the cardinal’s resignation. This is just the latest fallout from the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report released in August that lists more than 300 priests accused of abuse in six of the state’s eight dioceses.

In this exclusive interview, gay Catholic priest and theologian, James Alison, discusses with refreshing clarity the political, ethical and ecclesial ramifications of the growing legal investigations into the Catholic Church. He answered questions about church politics, honesty, accountability and morality and what it means to be “church” during these difficult times.

As you may know, James is well-known for doing theology at the intersection of Catholic teaching and LGBTQ life. Raven commentary on religion, scapegoating, and mimetic rivalry is greatly influenced by his insights and we are honored to have partnered with him to produce his introduction to Christianity, a video course for small groups, called Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice.

Transcript of James Alison Discussing the Catholic Church and Clergy Abuse

SUZANNE ROSS: Hello, everyone, I am Suzanne Ross, your host for this special edition of the RavenCast We are with James Alison to discuss the Catholic clergy abuse scandal. James is a theologian, priest, and author. We are happy he is with us tonight. This event is part of our new effort to thank our subscribers by bringing them exclusive interviews with mimetic theory experts from around the world. Raven subscribers know that the mimetic theory is the biggest idea to hit the behavioral sciences in the last 50 or 60 years and it has had a profound impact on Christian theology. So, James, thank you again and thank you for joining us from Madrid, you are one of our international scholars.

JAMES ALISON: I feel really chic to be an international scholar.

SUZANNE ROSS: Well, you are indeed. And you are well known as one of the foremost theologians using the mimetic theory today. Raven commentary on religion, scapegoating, and mimetic rivalry is greatly influenced by your work, James. We are honored to have partnered with you for your “Introduction to Christianity: Jesus the Forgiving Victim, Listening for the Unheard Voice”. It was a very exciting project and we are really glad to make that available to people. It is a video course for small groups, it has books that go with it and I  encourage people who haven’t encountered that introduction to Christianity yet to seek it out. It is a winner, if I do say so myself, as the producer.

JAMES ALISON: Thank you. Being involved with you all has been a huge pleasure and a great source of friendship and joy for me.

SUZANNE ROSS: Oh, thank you James.

JAMES ALISON: I am very, very happy with that.

SUZANNE ROSS: So are we. I wanted to let folks know that, the Raven flock, the Raven staff, behind the scene here, looking at, sort of picking a theme for our interviews and blog articles and so forth over the next couple of months. The theme we settle on is no matter what the topic is that we are talking or writing about, is the thinking about how we can move from being reactive in the situation to being creative. And, James, your work at the intersection of Catholic theology, and practice, and LGBT life, is just an exemplar, how to move from a highly charged reactive response to things to a more creative cum thoughtful response. So we are really excited to be starting the fall off with you on this topic.

JAMES ALISON: Well let’s see if I can completely fail to live up to those terms.

SUZANNE ROSS: Alright, we give you plenty up time to really get you going and we see how you do. I do want to let folks know that Adam Ericksen is gonna be monitoring the chat room and so if you have questions or comments as we are talking together, please post them in the chat room and Adam bring them in as he can. James, we agreed to talk about three areas about the clergy abuse scandal of The Catholic Church, they are the politics of the situation, accountability questions, and of course the big one, in my mind, which is the issue of morality.

So let’s start out with the political question first. As the extent of the clergy abuse scandal is coming into public view, the sheer dimension of it seems to be overwhelming. Various countries are involved, the abuse cases are surfacing all over, and the recent Pennsylvania grand jury report just sort of … to me had mind-boggling numbers, 300 priests over 7 decades, involved in abuse. So what I wanted to start by asking you, James, what really are the dimensions of the problem here and does the Catholic Church have a unique problem when it comes to sexual predators, pedophilia, abuse, that sort of thing?

JAMES ALISON: Gosh, as to whether the Catholic Church has a unique problem on this, I think probably is far too early so to say. What I think we do have is a role as the low hanging fruit. We, as human societies, start to become aware of how much child abuse goes on and how much child abuse went on in the past.  As you pointed out, the Pennsylvania grand jury figures, were for the state of Pennsylvania and I think it was seven dioceses, but not Philadelphia because they have already undergone a grand jury investigation about the Philadelphia archdiocese. As you said, since 70 years, and the figures are… well is not so much the figures are shocking, which they were, but the details that were released in the accounts were shocking. They were stomach-turning. So, both the mixtures of figures and what described was important. What I think it’s difficult to tell is how on earth do we compare any other walk of life. In other words, what you have in a Catholic diocese is a pretty good record keeper over a period of time covering quite a wide variety of institutions, including parishes, schools, and hospitals.

That’s what I mean by low hanging fruit, it’s relatively easy for sociologist or lawyers, in this case, to find out what happened, what was reported, what was not reported, what was covered up and so on, within an institution that keeps records. It’s far less, easy to do that with more short-lived institutions that don’t have bureaucratic systems behind them. One of the obvious parallels will be, for instance, the relationship between sports teams and coaches over the same period. We saw there was a huge vast of about Penn State and somebody called Sandusky, if I remember, leading eventually to the firing of Joe Paterno who was a big figure. That raises the question, supposing that you have access to all the sports leagues in the state of Pennsylvania over a 70 years period and records, as to what allegations have been made, how they been dealt with, who has covered them up or not covered them up. I just don’t know what you would find. My guess is you will probably find something fairly similar. I don’t know whether we have the same numbers. I don’t know whether we have the same creepy, what’s the word, quality, but the church details had. I think I do know, that nobody expects sports leaders to be quite the same figures of excellence and representers of God that church people supposed to be. Though actually, of course, sports leaders are treated in a very pedestal like way in people’s eyes.

I am saying this simply because it’s perfectly clear to me any organization that has records, it’s going to be easier to find out what’s been going on on its watch than one who doesn’t. And so, I don’t know what we are going to find out as more and more comes into the public realm with ugly incidences in other places that are not particularly linked up. The speed with which the issues around Judge Kavanaugh went from a particular incident with a couple of boys getting blind drunk and assaulting a girl from a neighboring school, the speed with which that was turned into lots of other people saying this happened frequently etcetera, etcetera.

We are in a land full of unknowns here. I am afraid I think that can be the case in many, many different countries. Remember how recent it is in western society or any society at all, to take childhood of seriously and to treat children as real people with needs and emotions and a deep potential to future sex lives. All of that is a completely recent phenomenon. I just have now idea how big this is going to get at a worldwide level. I suspect that what looks at the moment like only the Catholic problem will turn out to be… the church will turn out to have been as it were, the canary in the mine shaft, with the much bigger issue. Then again maybe not.

SUZANNE ROSS: It is frightening to think about the plight of children. I was recently talking with someone who was a… she is a lawyer and she is an advocate for abuse victims, children who were abuse victims and have to give testimonies. She is also a child psychologist and a lawyer. She was charged with interviewing abuse victims without re-traumatizing them, they are children. They are still children. I mentioned to her that we had talked about the Catholic Church being the tip of the iceberg, so to speak, and what she thought about that. She said well, unfortunately, that’s true. She said that children, of course, are abused by people who they trust, and then the abusers tell narrative that discredited the child and silence the child. A lot of these cases obviously don’t come up until the person is an adult and finds the wherewithal and the strength to be able to give voice to what happened. It frightens me to think of the dimensions of the problems not just within the church, and she said, it’s not just the Catholic Church that cover these things up but other churches do it too. Okay, let’s talk about something else because it is hard to wrap your mind around.

JAMES ALISON: There was a very interesting point, made…, I remember in 2002, when the Boston scandal broke, The Christian Science monitor, to their very great credit, asked the question is it a uniquely Catholic problem and started investigating other churches. They found it, which meant actually having to pay people to do investigative journalistic work, because it wasn’t easy to find out. What they discovered was they followed the insurance companies. What they discovered was there were very similar incidences in all churches. They usually, in Boston churches, what they discovered was an intended to youth pastors rather the actual pastors of the church, but, this was the thing, because most of these churches are individual entities they were susceptible to pressure from the insurance companies. So the insurance company would say, okay, you had this incidence unless you are an adopt, this, this, and this practice now will never insure you again, whereupon they very quickly became compliant.

What you had was the Catholic Church which was different, it was such a big client of the insurance companies that when an incident happened, the insurance company would say, now you must introduce this, this, and this good practice. I am afraid the arrogance of the church was to say we’re too big a client for you to lose, so we don’t need to do what you say, because you wouldn’t want us to go away. As it was, literally, the arrogance of the big client in relation to insurance claims was the difference. You can see what a good piece of investigative journalism it was that they were able to make that distinction. If it were a small unit something were happened it’s likely to happen at once or else you will be destroyed as a small group. If you are a big unit, you can get away with it much longer, because you can always say, we are too big to have to obey you, because you are too frightened to lose us. So I think your friend’s point and that picture which was produced by The Christian Science Monitor to me make very good sense, as to how, how these things work unfortunately.

SUZANNE ROSS: Well you know, thankfully, the church is looking for a proper response now and hopefully, interestingly, maybe in the position to provide leadership in this area on this issue about how to have more integrity, around how you respond to these things. But the issue is clouded by politics, as most of these things are, especially as these ecclesial authorities, the cardinals and archbishops are coming under scrutiny for having been enablers of the  pedophiles and so forth and protecting the priests rather than the victims. Even Pope Francis now is been having to answer questions about whether he was involved in this. It seems to be very, these accusations especially against Pope Francis, seems to be very political, especially this, most people are aware of, this very public letter by a former Vatican diplomat Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò, who accused the Pope of knowingly elevating someone under… or knowingly going against recommendations with Cardinal McCarrick. So I wonder if you can… I mean that letter created quite a shock wave around the world and did get people very reactive, very energized. So I wonder if you could just talk about Viganò, who he is, and what was in that letter and what are the political implications for Pope Francis as he is trying to navigate some sort of proper response now from the church as a whole.

JAMES ALISON: Quite a start. Let me try and describe the issue of it first before, Archbishop Viganò has been the papal nuncio in United States, as it where the ambassador of the Holy See to Washington and, therefore, the person in charge of bishops’ appointments, relations between the US hierarchy and the Vatican. So a person in a position to know a good deal about everyone. He retired when he reached the age of 75, he is now 78, and was not made a cardinal on his retirement, which clearly irritated him. It was normal, it has been normal for former nuncios to United States, to be made a cardinal before then. Now he in cahoots with a couple of very right-wing Italian journalists who are very publicly and notoriously against Francis and the reforms he is making in the church. Together they launched this letter, this eleven page letter and the timed it very carefully for the arrival of the Pope at the World Family Day event in Dublin. In other words, it was designed to be a media bombshell, which it was.

A friend of mine was actually staying in the Vatican that weekend when the thing came out. He said, the people in the Vatican were completely in shock about the letter, they were completely in shock. You couldn’t, if it actually been a genuine bomb, created more panic and chaos than it did. So they were in utter shock.

Now the letter made, its principal allegation which it caused ructions, was the notions that Cardinal McCarrick, who Pope Francis about a month before or 3 weeks before had formally removed from the College of Cardinals as a result of the discovery that he had abused minors. It was completely news to everybody. That Cardinal McCarrick had, let’s say, wandering hands and wandering attentions with seminarians was not news to anybody. But this news about minors, that really was completely shocking when it broke in the United States. I forget whether it was late July or early August, and Pope Francis very quickly removed him from the College of Cardinals when that came out.

Viganò’s allegations were that in fact, the Vatican they knew about McCarrick long before, and had covered up his offenses. Pope Benedict had in fact demoted McCarrick and punished him. That when Francis became Pope, for ideological reasons, he unpunished McCarrick and allowed him to carry on exercising his previous role as a diplomat and a fundraiser involved various substantial things. Well, here is the problem with that. There appears to be no evidence at all of actually having demoted McCarrick. If Pope Benedict did demote McCarrick, there certainly was no paper trail to show of that having happened. If he did ask him to keep a lower profile, we only have Viganò’s words for it. There is plenty of photographic evidence of McCarrick attending parties, making speeches, concelebrating mass with Pope Benedict, and with Viganò, during the period that Viganò said that he had been punished.

It is conceivable that Ratzinger said to him, at some time, I think you should  keep a lower profile because of these accusations. It is conceivable but we simply don’t know if happened, other than Viganò word for it. It is also conceivable, then again we got no one other than Viganò’s word for it, that Viganò said to Pope Francis, when he was elected, look here, this guy has these accusations against him. Francis may well have thought well this must have all been looked at long before I came here, as long this is only with adults, I am not going to create a fuss about it. In fact the moment that it was brought to his attention that a minor is involved, he acted very swiftly.

But anyhow, all of this is presupposing there is some truth to Viganò’s remarks, but the trouble, is there is no evidence. What is there is evidence for, and this is I am afraid the bombshell, to which Viganò’s has sort, was there were attempts going way back to the year 1999 to 2000 to prevent McCarrick becoming archbishop of Washington. People writing letters to the Vatican saying really, you should be careful with this guy, he has a habit of hanging around suggestively with seminarians, inviting them to his beach house, arranging for there to be at bed too few, so someone would have to sleep with him, things like that. These letters were sent. That means people in charge at that time were by no means Pope Francis or any of the people around Pope Francis. We’re talking about people like Cardinal Sodano, and Cardinal Joos, who were ,as it were the gatekeepers to John Paul II in his dotage. And they were the people who made the decisions. They were people who ignored the evidence. They were people who then, even having received the evidence, covered it up or pretended they hadn’t read it. Although we know perfectly well that they did, because the person who sent the letter, received a letter 7 years later, making an inquiry about one of the seminarians who was being abused, therefore the information certainly was received.

What Viganò did, and I think he did this probably with more passion than intelligence, was in his letter which is clearly obsessed with attacking homosexuals in the Vatican, was that he managed to out 30 something cardinals and archbishops working in the Vatican. In not very, what’s the word, not very subtle ways, ways that are pretty obvious to anyone who’s got half a brain. But it was very scattershot because not only did he out people who are as it were on the opposite ideological side from his own, he also managed to shoot a few people with friendly fire, people of his own ideological stripe. But what he also managed to do, was after the initial shock, some of those people began to become aware, that if the Investigation starts ,and Pope Francis reply seems to be that I am not gonna say anything about this, you journalists, do your work, investigate, follow through. In other words, basically, you have my permission to find out as far as this goes. Which seems to be the sensible thing to do.

Very quickly people began to realize if there was a serious investigation, it would lead straight to the door of the senior cardinals at the time of John Paul II. I’m afraid, who were notorious cover-up artists in this sphere and, of course, Viganò himself in his period as nuncio covered up as well. Including covering up the archbishop of Minneapolis, who eventually was forced to resign. But, where Viganò tried to soften the whole thing after a very strange conversation which no one know, quite well what was said, but it sounds like pretty loggy conversation. In other words, here the thing Viganò clearly has problems of his own in this area. This was an attack against the Pope but it backfired and very quickly pointed away from Francis, simply for chronological reasons, and straight to the door of a whole lot of other people, which will really be opening a Pandora’s box.

When you say what’s the political consequence of this, the immediate thing was to shake confidence in Pope Francis. I think Pope Francis having kept quiet about it, decided exactly what to do himself, and, maybe at some stage in the future, he will say something but, at the moment the journalists have been doing their work. As they have advanced, what is become clear is that a number of people who might have been partisan to Viganò at least the ones in Italy and Rome have realized that Viganò’s intervention actually does them much more damage in the long term than it does Francis. Because the Pandora’s Box that he is opening doesn’t reflect at all on the current regime, it reflects on those running show fifteen years ago.

My sense is that Francis is trying to keep his reforms of the church, his decentralized approach going. This was part of an attempt to, what’s the word, to blow that up, and it didn’t work. One of the reasons it didn’t work is because extraordinarily, closeted passion of Viganò’s in attacking gay people less closeted than himself made the whole thing… suddenly made the whole intracouncil war visible. And that is something, that’s awful lot of people on Viganò’s own side, don’t want to see. Does that make sense?

SUZANNE ROSS: I think so. We are very well aware that Francis has opposition from the more right-wing conservative wing of the…

JAMES ALISON: They are comparatively few, but they are very noisy.

SUZANNE ROSS: There you go. But this was much less about the political question than more of about, well, I guess, Viganò was supported by those right-wingers within the church.

JAMES ALISON: Very, very quickly, throughout the rest of the world, bishops and bishops conferences, committee rallies to Francis  support. In the United States, it was very slow. The first you got four or five American bishops who are notoriously part of the hate Francis crowd like Chaput in Philadelphia, and Cordileone in San Francisco, who didn’t comment at all about Pope Francis but commented on how steady and trustworthy Viganò was. So, yeah, the Americans have been very slow off the bat on that one. I think probably because they are still shell-shocked by what they know is beginning to come out about McCarrick, therefore, about so many of them. We are not talking here about people abusing minors, we are talking about the culture of deceit, and covering up each other’s foibles. That, as it becomes visible, is not to pretty for anybody, even though it’s not at all criminal.

My guess is many of them would not want to get involved, except for one or two who is very, very firmly immediately stood up and said we’ve got to support Francis. These are clearly cranky accusations coming from someone who they, as Americans, knew had been cranky. This was a guy, remember, Viganò, was the guy who brought Kim Davis the, I think, Kentucky lawyer (note: Kim Davis was the Rowan County, Kentucky clerk) who people tried to make into a civil rights martyr because she refused to sign a marriage certificate of a same-sex couple. Viganò tried to make her into a martyr, bring her to the Pope, so as to have photos with the Pope greeting her. He was clearly playing games with the Pope there and being dishonest with him.

So, as it were, a number of people knew about it, this not a person of dependable values, so to say. And they have spoken out, Bishop McEnroe of San Diego very forcefully, very forcefully, spoke out, Cupich in Chicago, Tobin in Rhode Island, and other bishops known as Franciscans, that’s how they are called in Spanish.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yeah, the Franciscans. Well, yeah, this discussion of dishonesty and cover-up brings us to the issue of accountability…

ADAM ERICKSEN: James and Suzanne, before you go to accountability, we’ve got a few comments in the comment section of the chat room. One from S. Gorden, who says, this goes back to how widespread this issue is, the Olympic doctor who abuse all those young girls and women. I just spoke up because I remember something very similar at Ohio State University wrestling coach.  Remember this from, I don’t know… a month ago.

JAMES ALISON: That’s not so long ago, that’s what Jim Jordan who is vying to become, the Speaker of the House, and who managed to get all his colleagues to agree with him, that his own cover-up version of the event is true. You couldn’t have a more, more classic example of exactly the sort of thing the Catholic Church keeps doing and yet it’s quite literally the whole of the Republican caucus of the GOP behind Jim Jordan. It’s astounding…

ADAM ERICKSEN: Tim Seitz-Brown, I think, says very helpful conversation and I think we might be getting into the next question so, Suzanne this is good lead-in. How does Girard’s theory give us insight into what is happened, and more to the point, what needs to happen going forward?

SUZANNE ROSS: Yes definitely, yes, good segue, Tim, thank you, Tim, for sure .Because, I think that does bear on the issue of accountability and how the  church comes to deal with these questions, because, James, you are alluding to people going into defensive and denial mode and sort of justifying their behavior and so forth. I would ask you the issue of accountability, in the legal sense, is moving forward, actually, investigations are going forward. In fact, I think it was just today that, I think, it was the American Council of bishops came out with a protocols about reporting and so forth. It’s not completely clear how it’s going to work, but they are moving in that direction of normalizing the process for the church not supervising itself, or investigating itself. But the bigger issue is this question of personal accountability and how an institution handles this sort of assault on its integrity or so forth, how do you move forward through that?

JAMES ALISON: Can I attempt to answer that at the same time answering the  Girardian question. Because this was very much in my head as I tried to write a couple of articles in The Tablet which is essentially on my website, people haven’t seen them. When you have a world of conspiracy and accusation, you obviously have a world in which Girard is very relevant. One other thing that I noticed very early on when this fuss suddenly came up again in the light of McCarrick and Pennsylvania thing and then Viganò, was you had the two typical, let’s say, approaches, with those issues of accusations.

One, is people who have a conspiratorial accusatory view, that somehow everybody is involved. That somehow it’s networks of people who are doing things as though people were conscientiously involved in various forms of cover-up. And then on the other side, you have the reverse of that, in the sense, which is people say no, the institution is basically fine, there are a few bad apples. In other words, one taints everybody with the same brush and, therefore, makes it actual impossible to discern what really goes on in each individual case. Which is likely to be a mixture of incompetence, sometimes malice, sometimes fear, sometimes innocence. Generally, a mixture of all of those things as you would get more or less in most circumstances. Like in family relationships or local post offices or whatever institution you are talking about.

For instance at the very early stage, it was all report about gay priests, so gay priest must be rooted out. And of course, as I have my own… I think there is a gay element to the story, but it is not, as it were, one that has to do with homosexuality, it has to do with enforce dishonesty in relation.

So the question how do you start to try and work out what is really been going on, in a way that’s neither a conspiratorial tarbrush against everybody, nor a self-flattering, ‘well it’s basically fine, but there are few bad apples.’ Because as it where one is far too strong in attack and one is far too weak in attack. One is far too strong in defense, basically, so the question of what it looks like to be able to undergo a systemic critique. What’s it like to get them to be occupying place of somebody who is part of the system that has been getting some things wrong, through the usual mixture of ignorance, innocence, both the innocence of someone who that is harmless, also of someone who is too ingenuous about what they were doing, malice. All that mixture of things is in fact how groups comes together and how they reproduce themselves. What is it gonna look like to become self-critical in midst of the system where the system isn’t entirely bad, because the institution isn’t entirely bad but the way system has been run just clearly had largely unintended terrible effects. Like for instance, people’s immediate reaction being, to protect the institution at the cost of people who are affected by it, etcetera, etcetera. So for me, that’s the really difficult thing. What does it look like, as it were, to occupy non-accusatory and an appropriately ashamed space, for long enough to be able actually to see what genuinely is wrong and how systemic it is, and, therefore, how it can be undone. Rather than either attacking the whole system or trying to defend the whole system by pointing out that there are a few bad people, who we can cast out and therefore the system would be fine. Those which fall into the obvious anti-Girardian positions, one is very obviously, one is simply revenge, and the other is scapegoating to save an institution. So, what does ashamed complicity looks like in the midst of that? My sense is that, one thing is the growth of potential legal accountability of the sort you are talking about, and obviously that’s got to done, for genuine institution, that genuinely have to be accountable to civil law in their respective legislative areas, countries, states, whatever.

What about accountability at the other level, the place where it is not simply legal, but how we learn to cope with honesty. What do we come to expect from each other as being the kind of appropriate sharing about who we are, such that we can learn to trust each other, not as cardboard cut-out figures. Because up until recently of course, the function of the Catholic Church is basically okay, provided you are male, at least of average intelligence and you agree, at least in public, to maintain celibacy, then we can ordain you. And thereafter you become a cardboard cut-out figure who could be wheeled into almost any situation and used without, theoretically, without your personality mattering too much.

We now know, that’s a hopeless way to run anything, a hopeless way to run an army, let alone a volunteer army, which is what this would be. But given that this has been essentially a volunteer body with rather loose, what’s the word, rather lose control once somebody has jumped through the initial hoop, than in fact, there is very little supervision. There is very little accountability, there is very little emphasis on knowing someone’s whole life, in such a way that you can trust them and relax with them. There is very little emphasis on something which I already thought should be obvious, but it’s difficult to see how you can institutionalize it, which is penitence.

Someone is only a Christian leader, if they are in the process of being forgiven. You are only obviously going to be forgiven if you are able to show there has been something, it really doesn’t matter what, that you are moving on from and that you bear the sign of someone who is genuinely found himself being changed over a period of time, as you found yourself being forgiven. Of course, that sort of person is going to be far less capable of pontificating abstract rules. In other words, teaching looks entirely different if it presupposes having been forgiven. How are we going to come and create ecclesial bodies, where leaders are have built in penitence?

SUZANNE ROSS: The basic question becomes one of being able to be honest about who you are. The Catholic teaching against homosexuality and the way it intersects with the priest vow of celibacy is sort of basic structure of, what’s the word, double bind itself?

JAMES ALISON: Yes, it is, there is no question, of course people can’t be honest while the teaching itself, could not be honestly held by somebody who is that person, who is sane. So, yeah, you got a point there but then it gets only with relations to the gay issue at all. I mean, I think of it this way, the church’s teaching on sexual matters has really been under attack, at least that is how they perceive it, has become untenable really since the end of the 19th century, if you think about it, and the beginnings of people becoming used to talking about things.

Remember that Catholic sexual morality was basically invented before modern heterosexuality was invented. It is a medieval construct and when we assumed that the issues involved with marriage were objective and people’s subjectivity didn’t really matter very much, indeed. Yes, they had to give voluntary consent, they had to actually want to be married. But thereafter, everyone knew what the rules were. No one was particularly concerned if you didn’t live up to them, if you didn’t live up to them, and, if you did, great. But all of that has shifted enormously since the end of the end 19th century with the beginning of psychology, people talking about things. People sex life’s, has become talkable. Whereas the beginning of the expectation of honesty associated with ones’ lives, rather than a kind of a general listen don’t ask, don’t tell, let’s not throw stones at that kind of glass house, etcetera, etcetera.

I think that obviously affects straight people and gay people in different ways alike. Which means the institutional of marriage has become much more difficult, because there is a huge amount more burden on people now, actually to have a married life, in the more than nearly formal sense, than might have been the case before. It’s become a huge burden to people who are celibate in that whereas before in a don’t ask don’t tell world, little sex wouldn’t really matter because what you are is celibate and people get the impression and that’s that.

In other words, the moment people’s lives become talkable about, it’s not sex that is changed, it’s not sexual morality that is changed, it’s being human that is changed. The talkablity of things takes us into a whole new ball game of how we relate to each other. I am afraid church officials are being stuck defending the previous ballgame, if you like, way past its sell-by date. And particularly reactively and frighteningly so in the case of same-sex issues. I think now whereas the church says yeah, listen, it really doesn’t matter whether someone is straight or whether they are gay. It doesn’t really matter whether they are married or whether unmarried and, of course, doesn’t matter whether they are male or female. If they are going to exercise a pastoral role, what we really want to see is that they are people who are broadly speaking, responsible, capable of honesty, capable of dealing with their own problems, capable of asking for help when they need it. These, I think, are qualities we would hope and see and want everybody to have.

We would understand, as an adult, they are going to have a sex life, of some sort. It doesn’t need to be a practiced, active sex life, but it needs to be a dealt with sex life. And it may lead, if they want to be celibate, they may need help dealing with it. And that would be talking help and having friends and so on and so forth. These are the kinds of things we would expect of any group. Any AA group gives us a better model for dealing with these things than most clerical formation programs. Not the least of this is Alcoholic Anonymous or similar groups require very great deal of transparency, vulnerability, trusting, relationships, sponsors, and so on. We can’t run away from this in the future. How that is going to be set up in each diocese I honestly don’t know. But something like that is going to have to be set up, if the transmission of the gospel on the life of Christ is to be credible. It’s possible. We are not talking about rocket science here. We are talking about we know what is not credible. What is not credible is apparently morally and sexually neutral pontificators giving us abstract lessons and we then discover there is a whole lot of dirt under the carpet.

What is necessary is people not have perfect lives but of shared lives, who are able to bear witness to someone in their midst and share that with each other. This seems to be, and that is quite clear that is the direction Pope Francis is going. And that scares , I think, that scares some people who thought what they were entering when they entered the priesthood was, in a sense, a way to tidy up any inconveniences about their lives under the carpet and try to be exemplary as these cardboard cut-out figures. But, guess what, it doesn’t work. None of us are exempled any more.

SUZANNE ROSS: Well exactly, that brings us to the last area that I wanted to talk with you about, James, which is the question of morality. We touched on it a little earlier in that we expect more from our priests than this. We expect better. So, how can we come to trust in the institution, in the hierarchy again. Ross Douthat said recently, he is a New York Times columnist, he recently thought the best way to reestablish or restore the church’s moral authority, was to have the Vatican establish a commission to investigate these things. I wonder what you think of that idea about moral authority in general?

JAMES ALISON: The just thing that most struck me about that Ross Douthat article was the notion, what we wanted was some sort of instruction so as to restore the moral authority of the Catholic Church. He wasn’t clear about whether it was the Catholic Church worldwide or Catholic Church in America. And that seems to me to be exactly wrong. I am not sure where did he get the notion that the Catholic Church is supposed to be a moral authority. As far as I know, the point of the Catholic Church is to be a sign of the reconciliation of all humans with God, a sign, it’s what it’s supposed to be.

The sacramental picture of the church, this is what the Vatican does, so it’s supposed to be a sign. That means it’s supposed to be a sign of something rather beautiful beginning to be produced in the midst of a great deal of muck. It’s a sign of people being reconciled because of being forgiven. Jesus didn’t give himself as a moral authority, he gave himself as crucified criminal. He becomes a moral authority as one who forgives us from that space. And it’s sharing that space and learning to receive other people into that space and not being ashamed of other people in that space, that we start to become the sign. Now if… that’s not the kind of thing to be sorted out by somebody making an intervention or setting up a commission.

Curiously, it seems to me, that if the church is to show it’s a role as a sign, it’s going to be sitting with that reality, allowing itself to occupy the space of shame. Which I think actually was what Francis was doing by not replying, by saying listen I am not going to speak about Viganò attack. People who are actually prepared to be the bad guy and therefore don’t need to have knee jerk responses of ‘hey, we’re making it right, now we are the good guy again’, if you like, that’s the self-sent innocent, moral solutions.

No, you can’t take responsibility for something until you actually work it out what is it you got to be responsible for and the learning curve here is going to take time. I think if anybody wanting to have quick shot solutions to what is clearly a complete change in our understanding of how to be church is going to be slowing the thing down rather than helping. Because they going to be suggesting there is a way to be good again after all, and the whole problem is precisely false goodness. People are agreeing we need to cover up the muck so as to hold on to something. No, that’s the worship of the golden calf. We don’t want a golden calf.

SUZANNE ROSS: Are you sure?

JAMES ALISON: It’s very tempting to go back to golden calves. Let’s say there are lots of people who would very quickly like to call it in. Pope Francis saying am certain the facts are leading us to a place where we are going to be sitting on the ground with torn vestments and dust on our heads for a bit. Then, hey, that’s a good place to be church. The chances are we will be receiving more of the gospel and will be better able to participate in it that way. It may need a moratorium on official statements about anything for some time on the grounds that everybody knows that they are not credible. Until the people who are used to make moratoriums have learnt what it is that is the size and the shape of the thing they are really dealing with. And I think you are right. Institutions can’t cleanse themselves. The notion of self-regulating bodies is always a bit of a joke. It is true whether it’s the police, it’s true whether it’s Wall Street finances, it’s true whether it is church authorities. Everybody says but don’t worry, we got sanctions in place we can regulate ourselves. Then, of course, in fact reality always runs away with those well-meaning, but ultimately, self-reinforcing systems. It’s going to be tough not running away from the place of shame. But I think, in a sense, it’s so obviously the gospel is probably going to be easier for many people, than it might seem.

SUZANNE ROSS: I do hope so because I think the other golden calf is the idol of our own goodness, and everyone, every human being worships that idol. We try to preserve our own goodness and I think you… I don’t know where, you said this recently in an interview that we did in Denver which was that being forgiven looks like you’re having your heart broken. Sitting in the place of shame means to have your sense of self and your faith in your own goodness just broken.

JAMES ALISON: We will know as church that we have been forgiven when in a fact we have become so accountable that we no longer notice it. Because we will have had our structures broken. We will have had our ways of being broken. And what being forgiven looks like will be finding ourselves in a space of sharing with other people at a much more simple level, in one sense, but also much more egalitarian level. That’s going to be quite frightening because most of us want the safety of a big boss figure in whose eyes we can be good by following rules.

SUZANNE ROSS: We want a church and structures to tell us what to do and how to behave, so we can be good people and …

JAMES ALISON: Daddy, Daddy, tell me who to be so I can be good.


JAMES ALISON: I think Pope Francis is very great for refusing to play the role of that person, the part of resistance which is getting some people who saying, our system depends entirely on their being such a person. But he saying, actually no it doesn’t.

SUZANNE ROSS: No, actually, no, it doesn’t.

JAMES ALISON: That was a particular time in culture and it’s way past its sell-by date. The only way through that is mourning, mourning of loss, mourning of… I don’t know, does that makes sense?

SUZANNE ROSS: It really does. I refer people again to your course Jesus the Forgiving Victim because you have an excellent section in there on what it looks like for laity to be in a relationship with the clergy in the church and it’s quite a beautiful extension of this conversation that we just had. It goes deeper into that.

JAMES ALISON: When I wrote the course, I had no idea how contemporary it would become how quickly.

SUZANNE ROSS: How relevant, how much we will need it.

JAMES ALISON: It’s amazing these things.

SUZANNE ROSS: And it applies whether you are they belong to the Catholic Church institution or any of other church body or institution body in which there is authority figure. So again, Jesus the Forgiving Victim, people, go out and get it.

ADAM ERICKSEN: We’ve got a couple of questions before we … Comments from Jack who says the concluding conversation on morality and the real meaning of church is both frightening and hopeful at the same time. Bless you!

And we’ve got a comment that I will try to put into a question, in the Q&A, I will word it like this – How can more empathy be created for victims? What is the church accountability towards victims? In this case, how do we focus on them?

JAMES ALISON: To be honest, I just don’t know because in United States the issues are dealt differently. Each country and culture deal with these issues in a different way. I think the first thing anybody wants is to be listened to and believed. For me, that’s the real point of empathy, because so often, the difficulty has been being able to describe the issue at all for fear that you will not be believed, especially if the person responsible was respected by the local wider figure. But, of course,… that as far as I know is the most basic thing. I can remember reading in a number of places, a number of people who came forward said that was all they wanted and actually they wouldn’t have gone after the big financial settlement on it, except for the fact, they were constantly stonewalled at that most basic level. No one would listen to them and believe them. People’s attitude was to run and hide and stonewall. So, I don’t know to say much more than that, that seems to me to be, at least, a very important.

SUZANNE ROSS: Yes, that’s basically recognizing one another’s humanity, respecting each other’s stories there.

JAMES ALISON: Yes, and understanding for someone to be able to be believed actually is like coming to life again. Because people who haven’t been believed, it’s like they weren’t really alive. We really are very much dependent on the other. It’s a very Girardian thing, the notion that we are individuals, we can sort ourselves out and then relate to each other. No, we depend on one another to bring us into being. And to withhold from someone belief in them, at that point after a traumatic event, seems to be as bad as the event itself in terms of the interpretation. The inability to interpret or to help with the interpretation is as much part of the assault as the assault itself. That’s my very answer to that.

SUZANNE ROSS: Very meaningful and wonderful Girardian way to end the conversation. So, James, I want to thank you very, very much for giving us your creative response to the scandal that’s all around us.

JAMES ALISON: Well we are all in the middle of it, so, we are all trying to work out, what on earth is this new space, we are living in.

SUZANNE ROSS: And I want to thank everyone who joined, the call today and who made comments in the chat room and when we post the video you’ll see it on the subscribers the extra tab on our website and so thank you to our subscribers, I hope you really enjoyed this visit with James. We look forward to the next conversation, James.

JAMES ALISON: Indeed, thank you very much indeed.

SUZANNE ROSS: Thank you, good night.

JAMES ALISON: Thank you, bye.

Relevant articles by James Alison

Homosexuality among the clergy: caught in a trap of dishonesty

Homosexuality among the Catholic clergy is once again in the spotlight. In the first of two articles, a leading theologian who is himself gay considers what is to be done.

The lying trap: why gay priests can be truthful about their sexuality

James Alison, a leading theologian, has described the trap of dishonesty and silence that snares every gay priest. Here, in the second on two articles, he argues that with lay Catholics increasingly recognizing that being gay is a normal part of life, clerics no longer need to fear being truthful about their sexuality.


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2 replies
  1. Trudie Atkinson
    Trudie Atkinson says:

    Thank you, Suzanne and James. Again I feel able to breathe deeply of the truth that being human and being Christian mean opening to forgiveness again and again and again. Brokenheartedness. Our legal system and the Kavanaugh hearing in particular made it so clear that appearances and never admitting even error, let alone guilt, trumps any kind of resolution. Need to sit together in the ashes. Trudie


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