No straight matter
James Alison, a former member of the Dominican Order, theologian and author, is keen to usher in the days when Catholics are no longer scared of losing their soul when they discover they're gay. He tells Ariadne Massa reality has to be faced.
Realising he was gay at the age of nine, Briton James Alison went on to join the Dominican Order at 22 after he discovered the joy of being loved by God. At 36, he left the order, because he felt he was an accomplice in a lie.
Today, the 48-year-old theologian lives in a juridical no man's land, as he gains notoriety by daring to spark a discussion on gay issues and the Catholic Church.
In Malta to give a public talk today at Rafiki's Self-expression, Msida, at 11 a.m., Dr Alison insists that the veil of silence shrouding this issue had to be tackled.
The talk is being organised by Drachma, a Catholic group of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people who meet to pray together, in collaboration with The Malta Gay Rights Movement and Building Unity Through Diversity, in a bid to initiate a healthy public debate on gay and Christian issues.
The author of numerous books, Dr Alison confides that he started to speak out on the subject because he refused to lose his heart. He is also confident that under Pope Benedict XVI, a debate on homosexuality has a better chance of happening than during the reign of Pope John Paul II.
"Pope Benedict XVI is a much more moderate man. I think the press finds it easy to depict him as this Pope John Paul II with thumbscrews, but I don't think it's like that at all. He's certainly more moderate, intelligent and sensitive than his predecessor," he said.
Now, he believes there is more space for discussion, so he is trying to highlight what he feels is the essential curiosity about gay issues for the Catholic faith. In his opinion it's quite simple.
"If there is such a thing as gay people, then according to the Catholic Church's own understanding of being human these people must flourish from where they are," he said.
He explains that the traditional teaching assumed the fundamental premise that gay people were defective heterosexuals.
However, a revolution has been happening over the last 50 years in Western cultures that challenged this belief as it became increasingly common for people to say: "Yes, I'm gay, so what?"
This gave scientists the opportunity to study what gay people were like and come to the conclusion that there was nothing here that led to dysfunction - this was not a condition like anorexia or kleptomania, where people needed help.
"There is no evidence to suggest that being attracted to someone of the same sex is anything other than a regularly occurring variant in nature... like being left-handed. For a long time this was thought to be a defect and left-handed people were forced to write with their right hand," he adds.
So what in his opinion should the Church do about this?
"I'm not saying the Church should do anything. What I'm keen to see is that we are able to live the truth without being afraid. We shouldn't be frightened of losing our faith by becoming who we discover ourselves to be if we're gay, nor meaning that we lose our souls by being gay if we remain Catholic," he insists.
He is obviously aware of the difficulty the official Church faces in adjusting to the new reality of gay people being honest and straightforward about who they are.
What he's noticed happens in many different countries is that the easiest way for the Church to defend its official position is to find a group of people who are extremist and disagree with it and then "shout" at them.
"So then the groups can shout at each other and you can get a nice piece of identity politics with an anti-clerical group and the Church holding firm against monstrous hordes. Of course it's a lie on both parts," he said.
"What I propose is this. Is it possible for any of us to get beyond this shouting match and for the Church to live the truth without fear and embrace gay people?
"The difficulty, of course, is that in most Catholic countries, the laity is pretty tolerant about gay people... In practice, very few bishops or priests believe there is anything wrong with gay people, so in a sense they're left defending a fantasy doctrine, without being able to say the truth."
When asked if the Church's stand on issues such as homosexuality and contraception were leading to a decline in church attendances, Dr Alison felt the reason was more symptomatic of present culture.
"People are growing up with so many different options of entertainment and ways of passing time that the whole notion of going to Church to pray and listen to the Word of God - which is normally explained badly - requires a lot of dedication when you consider how many other options there are."
One of the things Dr Alison is trying to do with his theology is to "furnish the ground for people who are very frightened to have a soft landing".
He points out that for many people in high-ranking positions, such as politicians, coming out of the closet was combined with the intense fear of losing their reputation, so this had to be overcome.
But how could he be part of the Church if he did not subscribe to its teaching?
"My point is that I do subscribe to its teachings. This brings me back to the question of whether there is such a thing as a person who is gay. This is a question of truth... like is the sea wet? This is not something that's dependent on Church teachings," he insists.
Has the Church threatened him with excommunication or tried to silence him?
"No. Effectively, I'm not part of any religious order, and I don't have a parish or a teaching job. I sometimes say Mass when I'm invited, so effectively I'm unemployed and survive by writing.
"Precisely because no-one is responsible for me, I often find and meet bishops and significant Church leaders, who are very pleased that someone is doing what I'm doing. They know perfectly well that if someone had to take charge of me someone would make them shut me up. So it's at my own risk and expense."
Dr Alison also points out that people sometimes underestimated how intelligent Pope Benedict XVI has been in all this.
"He has made it quite clear that this issue is a Third Order issue, which means it's not at the excommunication level. This is very important because it means there is hope that it will be resolved over time without huge fuss, anger or schism.
"I love the Church and it seems to me it's my job to bear witness to the truth. I may not be doing it very well, but at least one has to have a go."