With the Synod of Bishops meeting in Rome, the Church’s teaching on homosexuality is again a source of contentious debate. In essentials, this doctrine cannot change, but does the Church need to alter her tone or message to respond more sensitively to the needs of the same-sex attracted?
That question has been answered in the affirmative by a group of people whom I will refer to as the “Spiritual Friends” or “Spiritual Friendship Group.” Loosely connected through a blog called Spiritual Friendship, all are professed Christians, while several are Roman Catholics. All have in various ways experienced same-sex attraction, and are at least broadly supportive of traditional Christian morality, including its condemnation of homosexual acts as sinful. The Spiritual Friends have become America’s most visible spokesmen on the subject of what it means to be orthodox and gay.
In addition to their widely-read blog, they have expressed their views from a number of platforms. Eve Tushnet’s book Gay and Catholic was published last year to great fanfare. Ron Belgau recently addressed the World Meeting of Families in Philadelphia, and was hailed even in the liberal press as the first self-described gay man ever to receive such an invitation. Melinda Selmys blogs at Patheos, and regularly discusses the concerns of people who experience same-sex attraction and gender dysphoria. Wesley Hill keeps a personal blog and has written a book on “finding love in the Church as a celibate, gay Christian.”
Naturally, these writers don’t always agree, but they might reasonably be taken together as a kind of “school of thought.” There are many points of agreement grounding their discourse, and they also have recognizable similarities in style.
Drawing heavily on personal narrative, the Spiritual Friends try to give readers broader perspective on what it is like to live in modern society, as a Christian who experiences same-sex attraction. There seems to be a general consensus among them that the Church is not doing enough by way of providing pastoral care to same-sex attracted persons. They emphasize regularly the need for more support, acceptance, and understanding of people with this condition. At the same time, they maintain with some consistency that homosexual acts are sinful and to be avoided. Their perspective is illuminating in many respects, and leaves us with a helpful list of questions on which to reflect.
At the same time, many of us (myself included) have expressed concerns about elements of this discourse. Pastoral outreach to the same-sex attracted is surely important, and has potential to enrich the Church while providing relief to same-sex attracted persons and their families. But the tone and emphasis of the Spiritual Friendship school may be misleading and, to some, spiritually dangerous. Even while appreciating the value of the questions they ask, I myself worry that their connection to tradition is too tenuous, and their scope of concern too narrow. Even more worrisome, I suspect these deficiencies may reflect the unhealthy influence of modern paradigms concerning sex and identity.
In approaching such a topic one naturally feels daunted. Modern times being what they are, it’s no small thing to find a group of people who will openly admit to experiencing homoerotic attraction, while still praising traditional sexual morals as valuable and good. It seems presumptuous to ask more than this, especially because it is so heartening to hear the perspectives of same-sex attracted people who are genuinely happy to be Catholic. These are not trivialities. I have little doubt that the Spiritual Friends have in many instances given comfort and guidance to fellow Christians.
It’s fairly easy to appreciate the ways in which their narrative-centered writings might be beneficial to fellow Catholics and Christians. By telling their personal stories, these writers draw readers sympathetically into the perspective a same-sex attracted Christian. A regular theme is the need for more positive advice and guidance concerning the activities and commitments that might enable same-sex attracted persons to live valuable, fulfilling lives. Young people who experience homoerotic attraction may sometimes feel that one important door (to intimate romantic relationships) is being closed to them, while nothing else is opened. In the abstract, the experience of same-sex desire may not greatly affect the range of available, valuable activities, and certainly there are many people today who have difficulty finding their way to a valuable, productive life. Still, there may be value in tailoring some advice specifically to those who desire committed relationships, but have trouble forging them in light of their homosexual inclinations.
Already the Church offers pastoral care for the same-sex attracted, especially under the auspices of Courage. Some Spiritual Friendship writers have suggested, however, that it may be beneficial to differentiate more (for pastoral purposes) between persons who have already been gravely scarred by a homosexual lifestyle, and those who experience same-sex attraction but have not acted on it (to any significant degree). Falling mostly into this latter set, the Spiritual Friends often suggest that existing forms of outreach are ill-suited to their particular needs. It’s easy to see how this might happen, since pastoral attention tends to focus on those whose needs are most immediate and intense. Courage may offer great emergency care, but as chaste same-sex attracted Christians, the Spiritual Friendship group is looking for a “wellness plan.”
This is a valuable insight, which merits further discussion. Undoubtedly, many same-sex attracted Catholics (and their families) would appreciate a wider range of resources oriented towards helping them live healthy, fulfilled lives. Why then does the Spiritual Friendship group attract controversy?
Primarily, I believe this springs from a lack of balance in the group’s own discourse. They lobby tirelessly for better support and affirmation for the same-sex attracted. But their advocacy mirrors the mainstream secular narrative in focusing overwhelmingly on broader social attitudes that they regard as defective (because they are insufficiently supportive or accepting), while shying away from any discussion of the defects intrinsic to homosexuality.
It is certainly important to support the same-sex attracted as persons. It is also important to look soberly and realistically at the defects associated with disordered attraction. Obviously we should not do this with the intention of condemning or gloating over the afflicted. We should do it with an eye to helping those who experience homoerotic desire, in a way that is also consistent with maintaining pro-life, pro-family Catholic communities. This is obviously challenging in a culture that is exerting enormous pressure on religious groups to affirm same-sex desire as normative. It’s disconcerting that the Spiritual Friendship group seems remarkably oblivious to this context.
The modern Church is under assault from a secular juggernaut that would use homosexuality as an excuse to criminalize her teachings. This is a serious threat to the spiritual health and integrity of all faithful Christians, and the orthodox are scrambling to respond appropriately. This hardly seems to register with most members of this group. While offering occasional words of encouragement for those engaged in the struggle, they are intensely preoccupied with their own more rarified concerns.
Consider, for instance, this reflection from Orthodox writer Gregg Webb, in which he analyzes the responses his bishops gave to the Obergefell decision, and complains that they gave “only a passing nod to pastoral care for the sexual minorities within their communities.” Webb seems to think that pastoral concerns should be the headline, or at least should receive equal weight in the response to aggressive secular assaults on the freedom of the Church. One wonders: does he realize that these bishops are probably scrambling to articulate their formal position in hopes of protecting orthodox priests (that is, those who refuse to disparage the Sacrament of Matrimony by performing faux ceremonies for same-sex couples) from potential civil or criminal sanction? At such a time, is it reasonable to expect that “pastoral care for sexual minorities” should be a bishop’s central concern? And should we (recognizing that secular courts may end up parsing these documents in religious-freedom types of rulings) potentially risk the freedom and integrity of our clergy just for the sake of voicing general encouragement to the same-sex attracted? The lack of perspective here is troubling.
We can see similar problems in Ron Belgau’s speech to the World Conference of Families. Belgau relates an appearance he made at a youth conference in the week after the Obergefell decision. He found that participants were overwhelmingly aware of the Supreme Court decision and of the Church’s dissenting views, but that very few felt they could relate “something positive you could tell a lesbian, gay, or bisexual friend about how the Church’s teaching on chastity can help them to live a good life.” This, in Belgau’s view, is “a huge problem.”
As someone who works in print media, it’s hard to see this indictment as reasonable. First of all, what qualifies as “general knowledge” among American teenagers is overwhelmingly reflective of our mainstream press and its preferred narrative. The Church’s resistance to the secular assault on its teachings is big, big news. By contrast, the particular struggles of same-sex attracted Christians are not big news, except insofar as they support a particular “struggle against religious oppression” narrative. Orthodox pastoral outreach will never be a big news item, and nothing short of a full-throated, wildly enthusiastic celebration of homosexuality will satisfy the standards of today’s cultural elite. Any pastoral initiative that captures the media’s attention (and that of the lightly-catechized) will either be or be presented as a complete repudiation of traditional sexual morals.
Realistically, then, orthodox pastoral outreach to the same-sex attracted will have to be conducted in the deep shadow of a much larger battle for the life and freedom of the Church. This is why (to use Belgau’s preferred language) the Church’s “no” to same-sex relations seems resoundingly loud, while her “yes” (to other life choices that are open to the same-sex attracted) is far more muted. The “no” is not directed at alienated gay teenagers. It’s meant for a militant secular culture that hopes to use this issue to bring the Church to her knees. But given the urgency of the situation, we really can’t mute that message for the comfort of a small number of people.
I don’t press this point merely by way of encouraging the Spiritual Friends to regain perspective on their issue’s relative importance. It needs to be understood precisely for the sake of ministering effectively to those who experience homoerotic desire. The challenge goes far beyond just urging greater sympathy and solicitude towards the same-sex attracted. We need to do this in a way that is consistent with the obvious and pressing need to build countercultural communities that clearly, firmly, and self-consciously embrace the Church’s teachings on life and family.
Belgau’s Philadelphia address gives us some hints of how challenging this might prove to be. Throughout the talk, Belgau continually uses his personal sense of isolation and shame as an indictment of others: family, community, and Church. He talks at length about the difficulty of learning to forgive his oppressors. He even describes at some length the struggles he had forgiving his own father for being (for a time) unsupportive, even as he acknowledges that they had in most respects a very good relationship.
Despite all these hard feelings, Belgau never relates in detail the injurious language or behavior that occasioned such resentment. No doubt these matters are personal, but without specifics, it’s hard to glean any useful insights from Belgau’s story. Of course we should not heap gratuitous burdens on the already-afflicted, but it’s essential to be clear about the truth. Is it possible to do this without causing some hard feelings? It feels as though Belgau is deliberately avoiding the most critical question.
Personal narrative has its advantages, but it can also undercut discussion insofar as it puts the narrator in a privileged class (which in some cases may mean a privileged victim class), implying that outsiders can have nothing useful to contribute to the conversation, apart from their affirmation and support. This is a familiar pattern in modern discourse, but it’s problematic, especially when (as in this case) the matter under discussion is a condition that all participants ostensibly acknowledge to involve disorder.
Here we find some fairly striking inconsistencies through the rhetoric of the Spiritual Friends. In calling for greater solicitude, the Spiritual Friends seem to acknowledge that same-sex attraction is an enormously important, life-defining condition that demands serious attention from the Church. On the other hand, when it comes to the defective aspects of same-sex attraction, they have a tendency to minimize its significance, compartmentalizing prohibitions to include only the most obviously illicit behaviors (for instance, this blogger, highlighted by Hill here, seems to see nothing problematic in the deliberate fostering of same-sex “crushes”), and protesting any attempt to refer to people as “disordered” simply because they desire disordered acts. (This is particularly frustrating coming from people who insist that they do wish to be identified as “gay”. We’ll have to split some pretty fine hairs in order to explain how an individual can be called “gay” but not “disordered,” in accord with Catholic teaching.)
In short, it seems the Spiritual Friends wish to enjoy simultaneously the solicitude due to the sick, and also the respect that is naturally paid to the (mentally and morally) healthy. This is not an unusual quandary, but it is genuinely problematic, particularly insofar as it ties the hands of those who are genuinely anxious to help. It may be especially aggravating to those (especially including other same-sex attracted Catholics) who view the Spiritual Friends less as a victim class, and more as the fortunate and blessed ones who successfully avoided the more egregious wounds to which the same-sex attracted are vulnerable. Why are the Spiritual Friends not more interested in the perspective of this group? Noting this see-no-evil approach, I have occasionally wondered whether there might be a strain of “sexual anorexia” in the Spiritual Friendship school, enabling them to enjoy the sense of power that they get from proximity to temptations to which they have not actually succumbed.
Whether or not this is so, it leads us naturally to an important question, which only the Spiritual Friends can answer for themselves: do they genuinely wish to be well? The question is admittedly presumptuous, and may even seem a bit obtuse, but their extensive narrative invites it and of course we already know that attachment to defect is part of our fallen condition. We should properly admire those who are willing to labor under burdens that God has not yet seen fit to remove from them. It’s quite another thing, however, to be attached to those burdens, or even to see them as a positive token of one’s specialness or uniqueness.
Might this distinction partially explain why the Spiritual Friends seem so eager to diagnose defects in Christians and their communities, but so reticent to discuss the defects of homosexuality itself? Why they accuse the Church (in Belgau’s words) of “laying burdens” on the same-sex attracted (instead of regarding at least some of those burdens as being intrinsic to the condition itself)?
Ministering to the same-sex attracted is necessarily difficult at a time when the Church is working anxiously to resist the pressures of a secular world. It is necessary at such a time to build subcultures that are clearly and self-consciously “heteronormative,” but this effort will inevitably cause some discomfort to the same-sex attracted. Catholics should be encouraged to be loving and solicitous towards this group, understanding that this disorder is not voluntary. At the same time, those who call for a “wellness plan” must be open about diagnosing disorder, recognizing that this is a necessary prerequisite to achieving real health. The Church should always be ready to reach out to the afflicted, but her powers are often limited by their willingness to receive grace. As always, we must all pray for a greater openness to the fullness of Catholic truth.