James Alison and the reconciled discourse of dissent

March 24, 2010 | 11 comments
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James Alison. Photo couresy of jamesalison.co.uk

James Alison. Photo couresy of jamesalison.co.uk

Last week a friend invited me to attend a lecture sponsored by the  SLU Theology Club and featuring James Alison, a Roman Catholic priest and theologian.  Alison grew up in Britain, was raised in a low-church Protestant tradition, converted to Catholicism, and now resides in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, living as an openly gay Catholic and working with AIDS patients.

That collision of proper nouns seemed provocative.

The talk was to be titled “The Gift of the Spirit and the Shape of Belonging: Meditations on the Church as Ecclesial Sign.”  Even more promising: Catholic ecclesiology shares something in common with its LDS counterpart, inasmuch as both traditions revere an ecclesiastical hierarchy and value orthodoxy, and I hoped that Alison’s remarks might offer a wavy mirror on the shape of my own belonging.

I was not disappointed.  Alison opened by observing that ecclesiology, or contemplation of the church as an institution, is always a “broken-hearted” discourse, informed by communal contrition and enlivened by love infused with great pain.  He connected a broken-hearted ecclesiology with the sacrament of baptism: we enter the church by way of a symbolic death, and that humble entrance should inflect the way we inhabit the institution—that is, with humility, not triumphalism.

This struck me as  a profound reading of the sacrament of baptism. Alison’s subtext, it seemed to me though it was never mentioned explicitly, was both his experience as a gay men in the church as well as the turmoil surrounding the sex abuse revelations. But the larger point is pertinent to any individual with deep personal commitments to a human institution—even a human institution striving to signify Christ in the world—that necessarily reflects and transmits the frailties of its human limbs.  We love the institution for what it gives to us and what it allows us to give, but we do so with a broken-hearted awareness of its imperfections.

In the remainder of the talk, Alison set himself a challenging task, as I interpreted it: to work out a social position within the church that accommodates a certain kind of critique, but at the same time remains reconciled to church leadership and authority. He accomplishes that double feat first by gently diminishing the importance of the episcopacy in the spiritual life of the laity, emphasizing the role of the church hierarchy as the servant of Christ’s body rather than its ruler. The magisterium exists to make possible our ordered response to Christ’s call, he suggested, not to order us around.

But the central element of that ordered response to Christ is what Alison called a “huge anthropological shake-up—a new ‘we.'”  By this he means a new kind of community, the engine of which is not a human-typical exclusion of the despised, whether ritually or sociologically, but rather the crucified and risen Lord present among his disciples.

At first this sounds very similar to the liberation theologies of the late twentieth-century. But Alison’s message of inclusiveness is both more rigorous and more encompassing, for it requires reconciliation not only to the lowly but also to the lofty.  The “new we” must not become an “old we” by substituting a villified hierarchy for the old villain; there must be genuine unity, genuine relationality, among all the members of Christ’s body.

This is true even when we feel genuinely aggrieved by an action or a teaching of the hierarchy—especially when we feel thus aggrieved, according to Alison.  A sense of aggrieved victimhood is the death of self-criticism, and a self-critical subjectivity is vital to what Alison called “taking responsibility for our own belonging.”  No reflexive blaming of the hierarchy while claiming a moral advantage; we must come to Christ first with a sense of our fallibility.

This does not mean there is no possibility for a sociological critique. On the contrary, Alison suggests that the church, tragically and by historical accident, not malice, lacks a “self-critical institutionality,” and that the development of such a discourse is important to the church’s ongoing work.  But the possibility of that discourse is premised upon the “new we,” a fully reconciled community free from alienation and recrimination.

Cross-posted at Civil Religion

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11 Responses to James Alison and the reconciled discourse of dissent

  1. Christine on March 24, 2010 at 4:10 pm

    Beautiful observations Rosalynde. Too often we create a new victimology and a new enemy of the church leaders. Alison’s message is well-worth contemplation. Do our leaders actually see themselves as servants in the body of Christ rather than as those who get to make the calls and judge? My experience is that Bishops generally do serve as servants — that is not my experience of those in stake level or regional callings. Perhaps they are just too removed from the community to participate in the quotidian life of the members — at least as I have experienced it.

    Further, does this stance suggest that critique is invited or is it more of an intrusion into the hierarchy to call them to repentance?

  2. Rosalynde Welch on March 24, 2010 at 8:41 pm

    Christine, thanks so much for reading. I’m not exactly sure how Alison would respond to your final question. At one point during the Q&A he was asked what reforms, exactly, he was proposing—and he responded emphatically that he had no program of reform or specific critique of the hierarchy, and that to publicly promote such a thing would be inappropriate. Yet later in the Q&A he quite forcefully denounced the American Catholic bishops’ involvement in the Manhattan Declaration. So his own practice seems to be somewhat mixed.

    The obvious question that remains, of course, is where the “self-critical institutionality” he advocates is meant to germinate. Must it happen only at the top, or is there any way for it to happen from the bottom? That’s not quite clear to me.

  3. Craig H. on March 24, 2010 at 10:07 pm

    Thanks Rosalynde, very interesting ideas and analysis.

  4. Rosalynde Welch on March 25, 2010 at 12:41 am

    My pleasure, Craig! Thanks for reading. If there is a single idea that will stay with me—okay, two ideas—it’s the idea of baptism—>broken-hearted ecclesiology, and that victimhood = the death of self-criticism. Both ideas were new and very meaningful to me personally.

  5. Mark D. on March 25, 2010 at 1:39 am

    Do our leaders actually see themselves as servants in the body of Christ rather than as those who get to make the calls and judge?

    I don’t think most leaders in our Church see these two options as mutually exclusive. This sort of ecclesiastical inclusiveness is enormously important in my opinion, but the opposite idea, projecting power outward, reducing the flow of influence inward, sharing information on a need to know basis, etc. seems to be the more recent ideal in our denomination, at least as of a couple of decades ago.

    All hierarchies should of course project influence outward – otherwise they fail in their mission. The idea of cutting off the inward flow of opinion and restricting information sharing so that the opinion of the “laity” is as ill informed as possible on the basis that the revelatory process is entirely independent of what the membership in general feels about any given subject is rather counterproductive in my opinion.

    There are many that sincerely believe that is how the order of heaven operates. I halfway wonder what the reaction would be if a secular (i.e. coercive) government operated the same way. Isn’t transparency a virtue in religious organizations as well? Must an inspired government insulate its decision making process as much as possible from the will of the people it governs?

    Does God himself operate that way? Or is the idea that it is more effective for all such petitions to be routed upward to God first, and then back down the revelatory chain? Is there something about revelatory guidance that precludes the efficacy of petitions taking a more direct route?

  6. sister blah 2 on March 25, 2010 at 2:27 am

    It’s late, so I don’t want to say too much for fear of fumbling it, but just wanted to say that I really, really enjoyed this piece. I too feel there can be a special kinship between Catholic and LDS members in terms of processes of working out our relationships with the institutions. I also connect with the idea of a broken-hearted approach to differences. I have found on the bloggernacle that this is my personal test or dividing line for the kind of criticism/discourse that I can tolerate, or at least the voices I prefer to read. If I sense an aching over the faults being asserted, then to me that signals, for lack of better word, “heart in the right place.” Only those things we love can make us ache in a certain way.

  7. Chino Blanco on March 25, 2010 at 3:32 am

    How could ecclesiology not be a broken-hearted discourse when the only church you’ve ever studied also happens to disapprove of nearly everything about you and your inquiry?

    We’re talking about a Catholic hierarchy that has achieved the most highly-developed sense of aggrieved victimhood on the planet.

    How much heartbreak does one spare for such a hierarchy?

    I don’t think I’m alone in having grown tired of hearing lectures on civics delivered by ridiculously-titled religious royalty from the least democratic of our Western institutions. Never mind that it’s 2010 and this crowd still hasn’t gotten around to figuring out the difference between sin and crime.

    Words like magisterium will sweep some folks off their feet. I’d suggest trying to stay grounded by remembering good ol’-fashioned Mormon words like righteous anger.

  8. Rosalynde Welch on March 25, 2010 at 10:04 am

    Thanks for the comments, all! Mark D., this weekend I saw a screening of “Nobody Knows,” Margaret Young and Darius Gray’s documentary about blacks and the priesthood ban and its repeal. Although the idea was never treated explicitly, I was moved throughout the film by the way in which the day-to-day lives of faithful black members were themselves a kind of peition, an act of communication to God that was undoubtedly a major part, maybe THE major part, of the revelatory process. We have a model of dialogic revelation between prophet and God, and I think we can expand it to include the membership in that dialogue (multi-logue?).

    Thanks, sister blah, I’m glad the ideas meant as much to you as they did to me.

    Chino Blanco, I have to laugh at “words like magisterium will sweep some folks off their feet”—because it is totally true! I have major Catho-lexical envy, and I really get into their Latinate religious jargon.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on March 25, 2010 at 10:12 am

    An interesting tangent: Alison talked briefly about the particular position of Northern European Catholics, who often bring a Protestant notion of conscience and guilt, inherited from their cultural environment, into the Catholic framework. He schematized Protestantism as having few rules but a very strong conscience (ie, an internalized arm of authority that manifests as a compulsion to obey with exactness), versus Catholicism, having many rules but a much weaker notion of conscience. When you introduce a Protestant conscience into a Catholic set of rules, he said, it’s a “death trap”. It struck me that Mormonism is located at precisely that religio-cultural intersection. Death trap!

  10. Reese Dixon on March 25, 2010 at 8:24 pm

    I’m bookmarking this one. Alison seems to have so finely articulated so much that I feel and practice but have never been able to put words to. I think I’ll have to read a whole lot more of his work. Thanks for finding him for me.

  11. Rosalynde Welch on March 25, 2010 at 9:13 pm

    So glad to have passed him on!